AMN Reviews: Ben Richter – Panthalassa: Dream Music of the Once and Future Ocean (2017; Infrequent Seams)

On this album coming out June 2nd, accordionist Ben Richter provides six pieces mostly based on accordion drones. Of course accordions drone – that’s what they do. But Richter’s approach involves a prepared instrument and use of microtones to evoke haunting soundscapes. He creates slowly undulating, overlapping walls of sound. While drones are all the rage these days, using the accordion in this fashion is novel and compelling.

The title piece, Panthalassa, is broken up over three tracks totaling about 45 minutes. Therein, Richter explores his instrument’s range of timbres and dynamics. While Part I of the suite focuses on the aforementioned unconventional drones, Part II  features almost subliminal threads of sharp, high-frequency textures, building in amplitude into an alien-sounding amalgam. Part III adds oscillating layers to a multi-voice mix, each voice carving out its own frequency range.

The fourth track, Farther Reaches, is an orchestral piece that operates as a slowly building movement. Both musical and thematic analogies to John Luther Adams‘ recent Become Ocean would not be out of place. Horns provide drones that are consistent with the album’s approach, while the accordion is layered in between and strings provide glissandi moments with sporadic crackling percussion.

The fifth track, Cryptobiosis (Uncanny Sines), is the odd man out, being an electronic piece rather than relying on the accordion. With a self-explanatory title (the sine waves are clearly present in the audio), this is perhaps the most minimal effort on the album. Richter finishes up with I am the Wind, using the accordion once again to simulate a windswept soundscape.  At just over five minutes, this is the album’s shortest offering by far.

This is not your grandparents’ accordion music. No polkas or folk elements. Instead, Richter continues a line of work originating with modern classicists, such as Milhaud, Antheil, Norgard, Berio, and Gubaidulina, utilizing the instrument in a broader sense. Along the way, he contributes an absorbing album to the contemporary drone oeuvre.

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