Willie Reviews Leo Svirsky’s “River Without Banks”

Willie Reviews Leo Svirsky’s “River Without Banks”

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If you needed more proof that Unseen Worlds is the most exciting record label in the whole wide world, here it is. Composer and pianist Leo Svirsky’s River Without Banks is happy to ask questions, using dual pianos and a parade of other musical embellishments to bring rich execution to minimal ideas. Here’s RPM’s review:

When minimalism is forced to defend itself against hordes of angry maximalists (opera subscribers, Philip Glass pooh-poohers, old men who read multiple papers—you know the type), it employs early modernism as its grand predecessor. Erik Satie, and by extension Claude Debussy, were lovers of form whose work provides a handy bridge between old and new. If it weren’t for experiments in modernism, we wouldn’t have the postmodern experiments we call minimalism. But let’s not forget minimalism’s mystical bent. The trick of minimalist composition is to flee from anything resembling passion only to then find it in the most unexpected of places—maybe after 20 minutes of a looping composition or in a simple melody that becomes singular in time. But what if the minimalist aesthetic goes back even further in history and confronts the passion of romanticism head-on? Well, I think that’s very interesting, Leo Svirsky. On River Without Banks, Svirsky sprinkles true, full-hearted romanticism into stripped-down concepts. As we listen, he ventures uncertainly onto the ice, trying and testing new ways to reintroduce the unrequited and the unashamed into a clean white room.

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This record includes it all within its basic parameters: every note, false start, and guess is part of a happy, sweeping vision. Svirsky knows when to be discerning and when to let novel interaction play out. The signature technique on the album is making two pianos sound like just one piano wired through a delay pedal. It feels like scurrying away from a gentle tide or pushing a heavy object over the crest of a hill. The title track, “River Without Banks,” is the one that most made me think I was hearing echoes, not a duet. But it is a duet, and the doubling is close, with two pianos just out of phase. They don’t follow each other exactly, only really coming close when they state the main theme. But they are mirrors. They bounce off one another, a melody in each ear, and tap away like a game of tag that almost sounds like improvisation. And that’s not the only time the pianos run wild. “Rain, Rivers, Forest, Corn, Wind, Sand” is the densest of the tracks, and the one that most approaches a drone. The two pianos blur together, each only breaching the surface when a note is particularly accented. It’s piano static, and it revels in its organic performance. The reason it gives off a sense of improvisation is that it isn’t afraid of secondary, bloomed ideas. The composition encourages the player’s style to take over the dense arpeggios and make them shine with a second interpretation.

As for the literal romanticism, it’s more than a little surprising. Certain passages sound like two pianists playing a tender sonata simultaneously. “Strange Lands and People” features a quiet, personal melody subject to the whims of two, not one. Double the emotion? Maybe! In any case, it’s a certified new sound, and one that reduces the power of single, centralized ego. I think Svirsky is after this ambitious minimal-romantic crossover because the album wants to show its images exactly how it perceives them. It’s often all about nature on River Without Banks. “Field of Reeds” twinkles in golden light and rustling wind. It’s a successful musical picture. The music wants so badly to paint about the mysteries it sees. The rote repetition of minimalism simply won’t do, and neither will summary or shorthand in composition. The pianos pour emotion out into detailed pictures, trying to fit in every little thing. “Field of Reeds” is teetering, asking if the agitation of nature comes before or after the reaction. Cause and effect is hard to follow in the mystifying dance between the two pianos, but that’s the point.

Leo Svirsky "River Without Banks" (track visualizer)

The album notes mention that the phrase “river without banks” refers to a separation between the physical and the spiritual (the bank and the river). The album doesn’t seem to want to commit to an intimidating abstract of the river, which might clunk around in our heads and remain a spiritual head-scratcher. It wants the river to keep its great power, but it wants to couch that power in the equally spiritual surroundings of the river. There is still an earthiness (a “bank-ness”) to this music. The river with no start and no end is supplemented by its existence on a wide and wonderful earth. All the excitement of the non-spiritual world descends on the river and makes it even more enthralling.

Score: Swirling and unswirling a puddle.

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