AMN Reviews: John Oliver with Douglas Schmidt – Isolation Journal 2-breathe (2021; Bandcamp), John Oliver with François Houle – Isolation Journal 3-Restless (2021; Bandcamp)

I was previously unfamiliar with Canadian composer John Oliver, having been introduced to some of his music through a shared relationship with fellow countryman Paul Dolden. Currently, there are four Isolation Journal’s and I’ve only heard the first three. Out of those, I have the most familiarity with 2 and 3. The very idea of composing and presenting music “in isolation” over the last couple of years is certainly (and unfortunately?) ubiquitous but, that doesn’t make it unworthwhile in any way. I’ve heard many good to great releases created under the same circumstances that deserve recognition. These two stand out for me for their high level of emotional sensitivity, unusual and forward-thinking synergies between the natural sound of an acoustic music making device and the creative disruption of studio technology and finally, the inevitable personal cinéma pour l’oreille. (I say “inevitable” because, even with my minimal exposure to his music, it has become obvious to me that Oliver, and the musicians he chooses to work with are a positive creative force.)

Isolation Journal 2-breathe with Douglas Schmidt is a wonderful augmentation of Schmidt’s Bandoneon by Oliver’s studio treatment intervention. The Bandoneon is the only acoustic instrument used on this recording and Schmidt is very much in control with precise, surgical mastery of volume, sustain, and subtle timbral changes. The fragile melodies are cinematic, uncloaking a spatial vastness worthy of a gentle late-night journey of mind and/or body.

On the surface and possibly to a casual listener, Oliver’s input may seem white glove and low touch. Deeper, more active listenings reveal a chrome-smooth sheen that recasts the Bandoneon into something more modified…still partially organic but now a construct of its original essence. To borrow a term from Science Fiction writer China Miéville, a “remade”.

This is just one listener’s personal encounter and since I don’t want to be accused of influencing anyone else’s phenomenological experience, I would highly encourage your own personal late-night encounter too. Highly recommended!

Unlike Isolation Journal 2-breathe, Isolation Journal 3-Restless is neither gentle nor fragile. Here the featured musician is Clarinetist François Houle and the general disposition of this release is much more frenetic, and I would say a more challenging but no less rewarding listen.

This project had its genesis with Houle recording skeletal improvisational frameworks based on various extended techniques that he has refined over his career. These were then forwarded to Oliver to be treated electronically resulting in 10 fully fleshed out electro-acoustic compositions.

The album is structured as 20 tracks, alternating between Houle’s very short improvs and Oliver’s finished piece, which is mostly very different, much longer and sometimes completely unrecognizable from Houle’s original idea. In this respect, this is a true equal collaboration. This listener prefers to experience the album as only the 10 “finished” pieces (but it’s ok to listen to the raw improv > finished piece in succession…really, it’s ok!)

Some listeners may need or want the context of hearing the original idea first, but I find the flow much more satisfying by not including them. That way, I don’t have to do a mental “switching of gears” to get back on the proverbial yellow brick road of my own personally tailored mind movie. Your mileage may vary.

Either way, Isolation Journal 3-Restless is a heady listen with that distinctive Canadian acousmatic sound. Long waves of processed clarinet morph, mingle, and switch back upon themselves throughout their journey towards decay, only to be occasionally fractionalized (fractalized?) into shorter, spiker staccato bursts of white energy. Spectres and wisps of sounds past cavort and frolic along with a heavier, more metallic presence. All of these and more have a place in this multi-hued sonic place and the overall landscape creates a highly pleasurable tableau.

These albums present contrasting musical environs, and both paint a vivid aural picture. Depending on one’s mood, both are very worth visiting, and staying a while.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @Bigaudio999

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