Carrying a somewhat cryptic title, Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music is a collection of original songs by composer/arranger Nico Muhly and singer/songwriter/producer Thomas Bartlett (Doveman). Both active in their own varied roles on the indie rock scene, they're also both classically trained pianists who first met in the early 2000s at Columbia University. They later discovered a shared interest in the work of Colin McPhee, a Canadian composer credited as the first to bring the music of Bali and Java to the West. A precursor to modern world music, his gamelan transcriptions for dual piano were eventually recorded in the 1940s by McPhee and composer Benjamin Britten. Three of those transcriptions are performed here by Bartlett and Muhly and scattered through a sequence of nine original songs inspired by McPhee's work. The project is named in honor of Britten's partner, opera tenor Peter Pears (an interesting figure in his own right). Bartlett's lyrics were inspired by a combination of self-discoveries in his mother's baby books and references to things connected to Pears and McPhee, including the personal and musical.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music, beyond the fact that it's not traditional gamelan music after all, is how well the songs fit alongside Bartlett's work with Doveman. Made up of quiet arrangements for voice, piano, keyboards, strings, and pitched percussion, Bartlett's whispery vocal delivery and the occasional drum samples and glitchy electronics put a gauzy indie electronic filter over the songs' complex, overlapping rhythms. "Festina," for example, mixes pulsing and syncopated polyrhythms across a blend of keyboards, pizzicato strings, and metallic percussion. Bartlett's voice eventually enters on an overarching melody with lyrics that complain of moving too fast ("Chaos beckoned with a graceful hand/Smile like quicksand"). Emerging keyboard phrases, bowed strings, and atmospheric backing vocals join toward the end of the song as melody briefly overtakes rhythm. That push and pull -- melody emerging from rhythmic patterns and vice versa -- is a trait of the whole album and of the gamelan influence itself, including the sparer McPhee tracks ("Gambangan," "Pemoengkah," and "Taboeh Teloe"). An entry like "Selenite" is less intricate but still rhythmic and texturally complex. Taken together, the effect falls somewhere between an exacting étude and a stroll through a garden of wind chimes, with the singer's presence and gossamer instrumental touches often tipping the balance toward the latter. While it may sound, on paper, like an academic exercise, the results are exquisite and often poignant.