John Morton

Outlier: New Music for Music Boxes

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Only the idea of an experimental artist working with music boxes is enticing. On Outlier, John Morton stays true to the promises contained in the subtitle "New Music for Music Boxes" almost all of the way. The composer takes apart small music boxes to build larger ones. These assemblages are triggered by hand or machine, altered, and transformed to create little orchestras or to produce specific resonances. Four of the five works on this CD feature music boxes, three in a leading role. From the first notes of the title piece, the listener is taken into a unique world of sounds. Echoes of childhood memories meld with elements of gamelan music and John Cage's prepared piano pieces. "Outlier" presents the music boxes alone; a cyclic pattern is carefully put into place. On "White Tara," Morton adds light piano (one thinks of Carolyn Hume) and is joined by bassist William Blossom. This is one of the cutest moments on the album -- the term can be understood as pejorative if one doesn't like that kind of thing. The magnum opus is the three-part "A Delicate Road" (23 minutes total). Here, the composer applies sound processing to the music boxes, turning them into alien objects and exploiting their full creative potential. Steve Hardwick's guitar adds more strange atmospheres. "Lulabell" is a vibraphone and piano duet with the boxes providing background accompaniment: This exercise is a lot less convincing. But the album's real downside is "Slurry," a piece for three clarinets (all performed by David Loewus). The piece is not bad in itself, but it feels strongly out of place. Did Morton want to prove he can be a legitimate composer? Was it included in order to bring the total duration of the CD to an acceptable 45 minutes? In any case, it simply doesn't work out. Otherwise, Outlier is a very fine CD. Morton's music box music goes beyond the novelty act.

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