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Greg Davis - Somnia

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Artist: Greg Davis

Album: Somnia

Label: Kranky

Review date: Nov. 10, 2004

Greg Davis’ Somnia exhibits enormous restraint, employing technology in an extremely subtle way to scintillating effect. Known best for his laptop folk excursions, Somnia features Davis exploring ambient territory, the kind that only served as subtext of his previous records, Arbor and Curling Park Woods. The process on this record is fairly transparent: each track consists of a single instrument played through and processed in real-time by a computer. The tone of the source instruments – acoustic guitar, harmonica, Rhodes, magnus chord organ – determine the timbre of the pieces and, because Davis works in a dronesphere that might be significantly harshened by the severe contortion of those sounds, contribute to the record’s summery sameness. In other words, these drones are exactly as beautiful as one might expect them to be, and frequently suffer from the banality of that sort of beauty.

Davis was versed in composition and jazz studies at DePaul and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. This makes it difficult to dismiss Somnia as a collection of casual solo computer jams and impossible to explain it as a serious enterprise. Some pieces – the languorous “Diaphonous,” especially – seriously explore the transformative possibilities of a particular sound in a way that is at once understated and revelatory. In that piece, a shimmering tone evolves into a sonorous elegy crowned by delicately ringing feedback over a period of eight minutes.

The synthesis of organic sounds and the ability of computers to defamiliarize the familiar is a well-worn trope, and Davis seems too comfortable to challenge himself. Too often, these pieces are content to be hazy, slightly effusive chunks of deconstructed minimalism – “Furnace” bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlemagne Palestine’s “Schlingen-Blangen,” which brilliantly engulfs the listener in waves of organ over more than an hour. While technology has allowed Davis to extend reverberations ad infinitum, extract and showcase certain liminal frequencies, manipulate timbre and sound character with tantalizing precision, Somnia too often fails to move beyond formal exercise. Robust and artful as those exercises may be, their overwhelming singularity turns the record into a series of pleasant, benign fairy tales, notably lacking any antagonist.

By Alexander Provan

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