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Ben Kunin - Acoustic Adventures

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Artist: Ben Kunin

Album: Acoustic Adventures

Label: The Communion Label

Review date: Jun. 11, 2002

There have been murmurs of late questioning the relevance of simplistic beauty in music; not simple in its composition, but in its objective. As the palette (or toolbox or soundboard) for creation grows incrementally by the day, artists are pressured more and more to not only make use of these opportunities, but to turn them into something of significance. Anything less than Kid A is bypassed as child’s play.

Perhaps people perceive the appreciation of beauty as a warning sign of artistic stagnation. Maybe they fear turning into their parents. Regardless, these reverberations have traveled from city to suburbia, where misguided youths from upper-middle class homes mistake pretentiousness for progress, grandiose for grand. Only later do they find out (if fortunate) that Harry Partch was doing the same voodoo while Babe Ruth was still playing baseball.

Meanwhile, noise for noise-ache’s self-affirming volume drowns out the less-assuming sound of lo-fi splendor. ‘Bring the noise’ has become the slogan for a generation of art-punk composers putting the pain back in painstaking, where anything that disturbs the peace is thereby justified in its existence. The influx of said music seems reactionary, but to what? The corporate hypnos of Celine Dion and Train? This complete abandonment of intrinsic beauty only furthers the rift between the brainwashed mainstream and the hyper-saturated fringe.

The key to subverting mass-produced pleasantries are artists like Ben Kunin and albums like Acoustic Adventures. If more ears heard Kunin’s solo guitar work, the world would probably be a better place. No kidding. This music captures setting suns, beautiful days and wonderful tonights with a purity unknown to traditional pop music. Kunin resembles Rumpelstiltskin (without the cradle-robbing tendencies), spinning waves of gold out of nylon string, transforming everyday folk threads into magical carpet rides. Picking away in his pastoral bliss, Kunin’s ancient melodies and technical wizardry create a surprising synergy that bewilders and soothes simultaneously, much like the work of the late great John Fahey. Kunin’s acoustic nylon meanderings on Acoustic Adventure will inevitably draw comparisons to Fahey, not only for immediate similarities such as timbre and cadence, but for the imagination and spontaneity in which they arise.

Yet, to say Kunin and Fahey sound exactly the same would be reductive and disrespectful. While Fahey was first and foremost a guitarist, Kunin teaches the sarod at Ali Akbar Khan’s institute in San Rafael, California. Kunin studied under Khan for many years, learning the 25-string instrument from one of the world’s greatest musicians.

Needless to say, Kunin’s virtuosity in Indian classical music greatly influences his guitar work. In fact, Kunin’s syncretic tendency makes itself quite clear on Acoustic Adventures opening piece, “Pastoral Suite, Pt. 1.” The crystal clear melody is anchored by a resonating bass drone that rests subtly in the background, lending the piece unique depth and texture for an acoustic guitar recording. Kunin takes this a step further on “Pastoral Suite, Pt. 2” a work actually based on Khan’s “Swara Samrat.”

On “Brindavan,” Kunin’s Indian classical background shines through with a passion and intensity unmatched on the album. The constant sustain of the bass notes, accompanied by an aggressively-plucked melody that frequently dips down to share the lower register, results in a meditative wall of sound. Kunin pays special attention to the bass notes, revitalizing the drone with noticeable slaps and creating an electrifying polyphony of high and low resonance.

Despite the delicate intricacies of Kunin’s music, there will be those who dismiss it as straightforward guitar finger-plucking – pleasant, but unprovoking – and that’s too bad. Music should not have to produce mind cramps or visceral gut reactions every time out. So, if you ever sicken of the try-hard mentality of other artists and genres, check out the quiet confidence of Acoustic Adventures, because you don’t need dissonance to do what you think is right.

By Otis Hart

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