Dal Niente and Deerhoof Present Balter/Saunier

Rarely do such distinct musical voices come together to make a perfect hybrid as Ensemble Dal Niente and Deerhoof on Balter/Saunier (New Amsterdam Records). Belying its slash-split title, this album features strong thematic connections between the works of both composers represented and the seamless integration of two curious and eclectic ensembles capable of effortless and ecstatic virtuosity. The album contains two long, multi-movement works by Marcos Balter and Greg Saunier, with an additional chamber work by Balter in between.

Balter’s seven-movement meltDown Upshot, performed by Deerhoof with Ensemble Dal Niente, is obliquely styled as a mass in praise of the redemptive power of music itself. The gorgeous first movement, “Credo,” opens with a declaration of faith: “It must be heard and seen. It must have beat,” Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki intones, supported by restless, spectral strings and winds rising and falling against polyrhythmic piano and harp. “Must be tangible. Must have beautiful light,” she continues, and the ensemble bursts into a surprising harmony at the end of this line as if piercing through a cloud. The rest of Deerhoof arrives in “Parallel Spaces,” with Greg Saunier (drums) and Ed Rodríguez (bass) providing a driving beat against John Dieterich’s patiently shifting guitar lick. Ensemble Dal Niente’s sopranos Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and Carrie Henneman Shaw echo Matsuzaki at a distance, painting her text: “Parallel to spaces/Between parallel spaces/That are parallel to spaces/They hide from me in secret floors.”

Marcos Balter

Marcos Balter

“Ready” opens with the full ensemble playing an aggressively angular 12-tone line in unison. Bartlett and Shaw shout “Music!” in a sly acknowledgment of the introduction – “sing it sing it sing it sing it!” they continue as the tone row becomes a halting bass ostinato. “Symmetrical, accessible, lovely lines. Ea-SY, ca-TCHY, snap-PY, sil-LY, rea-DY,” breathes Matsuzaki, her words made all the more irreverent in their offbeat emphasis against Saunier’s frenetic drumming. “I dream of sounds in color,” all three singers exclaim. Perhaps Balter’s synesthetic text is mocking the popular narrative of the genius composer, as well as the restriction of Deerhoof’s imagination to rock genres just because they happen to have guitars and drums.

“True/False” is a short instrumental interlude with each instrument adding to a mechanical yet wistful hocket, while the relaxed bossa nova harmonies of “Home” contradict the confessional and surreal text: “Deep inside these particles, locked away, the sum of me bleeds…Sunken boats with counterfeit memories becoming debris.”

The final two movements have a religious undertone of sin and redemption. “Cherubim” opens with a bombastic 5/4 pattern in Saunier’s drums punctuated by the insistent plink of a toy piano. The ensemble’s syncopated groove feels accusatory as Matsuzaki sings “unnatural thoughts of voluntary sins/Incurable remorse for the things I never did,” while Shaw and DeBoer chorus “Sin…Guilty” under her. Finally, “Rapture” mirrors the opening movement with Matsuzaki’s plain ascending melody, this time poised above a straightforward drum beat and bright but unstable harmony. The refrain, “Vanishing, vanishing, spiral downwards” modulates through several distant chords before returning, as if she is peering over a precipice. “This could be the new meaning of your life,” all three singers plead, “through the ends, new beginnings.” The strings and guitars fade to a rhythmic hush.

Ensemble Dal Niente--Photo by Drew Reynolds

Ensemble Dal Niente–Photo by Drew Reynolds

Balter’s Pois que nada a que dure, ou que durando follows meltDown Upshot. The short chamber piece fits well on the album as a short coda to the longer work, both an acknowledgment of nihilism and a rejection of it. “Pois que nada que dure, ou que, durando/Valha, nest confuso mundo obramos….O prazer do momento anteponhamos” sings Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (“Since we do nothing in this world/That lasts, or that, lasting is of any worth…Let us prefer the pleasure of the moment.”). Her dazed and flexible recitation of the Fernando Pessoa text slides around a central low pitch with each phrase in melodic limbo, while Jesse Langen’s detuned guitar strings and forlorn whistling suspend the duo in time.

Closing the album is Greg Saunier’s Deerhoof Chamber Variations performed by Ensemble Dal Niente. Stepping away from his role as Deerhoof’s drummer, Saunier adapted versions of his band’s songs for the ensemble, fitting them into a twenty-minute suite with distinct divisions. Deerhoof fans will recognize the tunes, but each of them has a new personality instead of simply being an arrangement. The anxious groove in “Desparecere” becomes a gradually intensifying overture while the precisely asymmetrical rhythms in “Rainbow Sihlouette of the Milky Rain” are rendered as a Stravinskian motor. The crunchy, warped synthesizer in “O’Malley, Former Underdog” becomes a graceful solo on Mark Buchner’s double bass, while the menacing guitar riff in “Giga Dance” is reimagined as a haunting soprano vocalise. The most successful of Saunier’s adaptations is “Data,” its stark and relentless distorted guitar translated to delicate harp and strings while its lyrics (“Nothing you can do can stop me falling”) become more resigned than determined. It’s the only section that retains the lyrics from the original song. Among the ensemble’s performances in the whole piece, Matthew Oliphant’s horn playing is especially memorable (“My Purple Past”).



Greg Saunier chose those songs for which he had a writing credit when selecting songs across his band’s catalogue to include in Deerhoof Chamber Variations. Interestingly, the biggest structural changes between the originals and the arrangements are the absence of his drums, not just because of their signification of “rock.” The drum-less arrangements have a different feel in their rhythm and phrasing altogether, revealing the depth – and the unquestionably solid songwriting – of Saunier’s work with Deerhoof. 

This album is the result of a special collaboration, and I hope it can herald more cross-genre collaborative among other ensembles, both for stylistic ambassadorship to other fan bases and the fresh modes of thinking that performers and composers embody through the process of collaboration. In Balter/Saunier, it’s evident all involved were pushed out of their comfort zones during the process, and the result is riveting and endearing.