Last June, thanks to the kindness of the Kites, friends of ours in Portland, Oregon, Melissa and I spent a couple of nights with the Kite family in a house perched over the Pacific Ocean. Our 180º view of the watery expanse was bracketed by Cape Meares to the north and cliffs to the south, and haystacks
promenaded out into the water just below us. As expected, it was visually stunning, but what was unexpected—forgotten in the many years since we had sojourned at the water’s edge—was the sound. Constant yet ever-changing; thunderous but nuanced, with echoes bouncing off the land and the clouds, and with grace notes from wind and rain, the sound was absolutely mesmerizing and transformative. This coastal son et lumière gave me simultaneously the contradictory notions of just how vast is the ocean, and just how tiny the planet.
So when, a few months later, I got word of clarinetist/composer Doug Wieselman’s album, From Water, I was more than intrigued. All of the tunes on this 10-track album—with the exception of John Lennon’s “Julia”—are originals that were primarily made from melodies Wieselman heard in bodies of water. Add that he’s worked with some of my favorite musicians—Bill Frisell, Eyvind Kang, and Jenny Scheinman, among others—and I was ready to listen.
This guy has got a serious pair of ears and absolute command of his instrument.
All but two of the pieces are performed live and solo on Albert clarinets of various vintages,
using a loop pedal (the digitech PDS 800 from the ’80s, for the geeks in the audience), played through a 1960 Fender Vibrolux amp. Of the two remaining pieces, one features a naked
clarinet—i.e., sans loop pedal—and the other reprises an earlier track, employing a choir
comprising 11 human voices in place of the looped clarinet.
The loops quite successfully duplicate the soft, subtly shifting bed of sound that underlies
bodies of water. In “Pacific 2,” the track starts with a simple, flowing melodic fragment that morphs into woven strands that together become the primary melody and the rhythmic base of the composition. Out of this stream, a voice will rise momentarily to the surface with a fresh melodic idea and then recede, passing the baton to another voice. It’s acoustic—and
Wieselman’s tone is hefty and appropriately moist—but nicely blended with the electronic
It’s an approach that Wieselman uses effectively throughout the album. On some compositions—like “Moonhaw,” which suggests an Irish reel, and “Salmon,” on which the clarinet takes on the sound of a Native American flute—the melodic element is more prominent than others, but the repeated and ever-
shifting rhythmic/melodic figures form the
underpinnings of virtually every piece. They are as soothing as waves on the shoreline or the rippling burble of a stream, and they
provide a cerebral massage that is both
stimulating and relaxing. Cerebral it may be, but it is never intellectualized, and
Wieselman’s nuanced performances
illuminate the emotional depth of the
“Gloria Fleur Madre,” the album’s most playful composition, features the naked clarinet on a tune taken from Catalonian winds. It brings a North African flavor into the mix, a reminder that this northern Iberian region marked the deepest incursion of the Moorish armies.
Wieselman gets a kind of calliope sound out of the high-pitch Bb Albert from the early 1900s that he uses on this piece.
Perhaps the most haunting track is “Train,” courtesy of a cross-country skiing experience in the Hudson Valley. Is there anything lonelier or, at the same time, more companionable than a train horn echoing across a quiet valley? Wieselman eerily reproduces that sound on his clarinet, and the composition, carried on a four-note railroad-wheels rhythm, expounds on that emotional contradiction.
From Water carries the listener far from the hectoring preoccupations of everyday life, retuning the internal clock to a slower, contemplative rhythm and touching the edge of the timeless.
Release notes: Scheduled for release on January 21, the album is available on a massive vinyl platter, which weighed in at 199 grams on my kitchen scale, and various digital formats. You’ll find it at www.dougwieselman.com, which should be fully operational in a few days’ time. I
previewed the vinyl version, and the sound is spectacular, but try not to scratch the thing before you drop the needle on it for the first time, which is what I very clumsily did.
© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.