Willie Reviews Nathan Schram’s “Oak and the Ghost”

Willie Reviews Nathan Schram’s “Oak and the Ghost”


Composer and violist Nathan Schram’s album Oak and the Ghost takes a terrifying ride through the hellscape of capitalism and its ensuing rebellion. You’ll want to play it for your friends. Here’s RPM’s review:

Halfway through the staccato whirlwind that is Nathan Schram’s Oak and the Ghost, and outlier arrives. Aptly, it’s titled “Soft,” and though it’s among the least grinding and determined out of all nine tracks, it knocked the breath out of me the most. It takes long quotations and style notes from 19th century Romantic composer Richard Wagner—the tall, weeping sound that stands over the listener and drips dense drops of melodrama—and yet Schram’s usage of the teasing shapes of Tristan und Isolde feel so pointedly sinister. Listening to it, I felt the web of contextual associations made perfectly clear. Perhaps it was performed in a newly-constructed theater mimicking a Baroque style. And in the origins of that grand sound was the vicious struggle for power consolidation. Those who heard it were dreaming of a tighter and tighter vice grip on property in a rapidly industrializing world. And still the music read as sentimental. This surreal grasp on power is key to Nathan Schram’s thesis. In his album notes, he mentions a “massive collection of wealth and power” as the inspiration for his compositions, and he explores rebellion and reaction to that collection. What we get are moments of relentless forward motion and reflective “reaction” pieces as a counterbalance. Throughout, he searches for the causal connections between these two moods, and the fluid musical movement between them is a clue to their knotted outcomes.

The first thing you’ll hear is a nervous speed, rattling uncomfortably but unrelentingly. “Boston” introduces some of his favorite string techniques: scratchy, digging cuts for rhythm and loosely held bows sliding icily on the strings. Schram, the violist of the Attacca Quartet, plays with the other three members in these novel ways. He benefits from the group’s one-mindedness, born out of experience. On the opener, the sound approximates something like an early model car speeding until its bolts fall out and it collapses into a thousand factory parts. The risk and the danger of this mechanical power are weighed against the change it may bring about. “Óyelo” takes the rhythm away from the tense duple meter of the first and spreads it over three quick beats. The strings do plenty of strumming, and the swells gliding over the top recall passing trains or assembly lines. It starts to hint at its own troubling incompleteness. This open question is further tackled by “Avión.” Ostensibly using an airplane as its subject matter, the steady, automated rhythm is still there, but it is decidedly less sure of itself. Descending into quiet sections punctuated by sharp wails, it suggests that this giant flying machine is not all there is. It reveals the flipside of optimistic industrialization: the laboring enemies it creates.

In listening to this music about wealth inequality and worker exploitation, it becomes clear that the nervous energy exists in both camps: simmering resentment among the lower classes and fear of blowback amongst the ruling classes. But the same double feeling exists in the quieter sides of the album. Schram makes it a point to occasionally amplify single voices in an uncluttered landscape. It should be no surprise that he handles themes and fragments of themes so deftly. As a member of a quartet, he often ingests the partial value of a theme and relates it to the macro sound of the quartet. On the latter half of “Woljeongsa,” the viola and cello take turns monologuing in a decidedly ornamented way. Their sliding pitches and alluring trills are two leapfrogging individuals pouring out their incongruent thoughts in a horribly confusing mess around them. Titled for a Korean Buddhist temple, it sinks into personal reflection in a way that reminds us of the weight of that simple exercise. Schram makes sure neither he nor his audience gets lost in the multi-layered environments he builds.

Nathan Schram, photo by Shervin Lainez

Despite its intentional contradictions and weighty questions, the album is put together to be highly listenable and current. Schram writes that one of his goals was accessibility, and he certainly achieves that. It can be a dedicated listening experience or excellent driving music. The way he and his collaborators build up tracks most always begins with rhythm. By recording on top of live takes and bolstering main ideas, his subtle obsessions don’t float away. The story of the album might briefly be “keep listening!” And often it doesn’t take much convincing. On the album’s title track, the adventurous production hits its peak. Featuring a long list of musicians, percussion, synthesizers, and strings, it paints out a melody reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s film scores. The percussion seizes the upper hand as the track goes on, and barely-organized chaos wins over. And still I think it would work in most crowds.

Oak and Ghost’s greatest strength is its constant aspiration to appear bigger than it is. The themes, both philosophical and musical, are big, but the ensemble is purposely small. The goal of the production is to build a magnificent colossus out of mirrors and trickery. Seen as a winking critique of unrestrained ambition, it works perfectly. And seen as an achievement of music-making, it’s just as great.

Score: Hammering away at the hammer making machine.

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