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V/A - Cold Blue

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Artist: V/A

Album: Cold Blue

Label: Cold Blue

Review date: Aug. 15, 2002

A remarkable document rediscovered

The early 1980s were heady times for “New Music” in the US. The New York Times was providing regular dispatches about punk rockers mixing with minimalist composers; the loft jazz movement was exploring the intersections of improvisation, dance, and conceptual art. With his high-culture profile, influential Times music critic John Rockwell reported it all to the world.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a loosely connected bunch of young composers was creating a Far Eastern-inflected, nature-influenced , Americana-pastoral music that had its conceptual roots in the works of an earlier generation of composers: John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch.

The Cold Blue anthology, originally released by the California record label Cold Blue in 1984, was an unusual commodity: a label sampler that was great to listen to all the way through, as though it were a single work. Given the variety of composer’s voices represented, this was quite an accomplishment.

Starting with pedal steel explorer and master instrument builder Chas Smith’s “Beatrix”, a massive meditation on a single distorted chord that is left to fade and decay into endless overtones, Cold Blue remains a fascinating and compelling sonic journey, one that combines simple beauty with awe-inspiring power; not unlike the sepia-tinged 1884 photograph of a tornado that graces the cover.

It’s a seamless flow from Ingram Marshall’s “Gradual Siciliano,” with its parlor piano and tape-delayed mandolin creating a sort of lovely-but-foreboding Mediterranean landscape, to Peter Garland’s “The Three Strange Angels,” a thunderous ritual for piano and bull-roarers, on through other works, to Michael Byron’s “Marimbas in the Dorian Mode,” a gentle, organic, Eno-esque pastoral.

The album ends, appropriately enough, with James Tenney’s “Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow”, a piece for player piano and piano rolls hand-cut by one of the progenitors of the West Coast aesthetic, Conlon Nancarrow himself. The piece is at once thorny and melodically gripping; an ideal ending that brings the journey back to the world of its predecessors while also moving onward.

Re-issued now nearly 20 years later, Cold Blue still seems to matter, and the new piece added for the CD release, a deeply romantic piano nocturne by David Mahler, dovetails perfectly with the original sequence. The compilation still has the power to refresh – to reaffirm the value of exploratory music without bombast, music that quietly opens ears and minds.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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