Album Art

Saman Shahi Creates Welcoming Spaces on Microlocking

Even for fans of contemporary classical, microtonal music can sometimes be a tough sell. Not because there’s a lack of great microtonal music, but because in any experimental mode of music-making, it’s easy to create something that feels more like a demonstration of a technique than a complete musical experience. There aren’t many casual fans in the world of microtones and alternate tunings — the people making this music are extremely serious about their love for it, and the listener has to be ready to come along for the ride. In spite of all this, Microlocking by Saman Shahi (out November 19 on People Places Records) uses microtonality as a sonic experience that welcomes the listener with challenging but rewarding music and establishes an easy access point for much of its audience.

“Microlocking I” should put anyone initially hesitant about microtonal music at ease. Performed by junctQín keyboard collective, the work is scored for six digital pianos, half of them tuned a quarter step sharp. What makes this piece — and the album as a whole — so successful is that the pitch content isn’t the sole focus, but merely a feature. In fact, “Microlocking I” is more of a minimalist piece in the style of Phillip Glass that just so happens to be microtonal. The rhythmic overlapping of the six pianos is what creates the musical interest, and the microtonality — which is certainly evident, though Shahi isn’t going out of his way to remind you — is icing on the cake.

Saman Shahi--Photo by Dahlia Katz

Saman Shahi–Photo by Dahlia Katz

Shahi calls “Microlocking II” “an effort to fuse groove and microtonality with inspirations from both the contemporary classical methodology as well as Iranian traditional improvisation practices,” although the electronic elements may mask the Iranian influences for those without a deep knowledge of the tradition. Performed by Andrew Noseworthy, the work features multiple tracks of layered guitars, which alternate between directly interacting with each other, then ignoring their counterparts.

The greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses of this track both lie in the production of the recording. Some of the most exciting moments are when a sound is hard panned to one side of the stereo, seemingly coming from nowhere. Digitally produced glissandi also pop up throughout the piece and make for a fascinating texture. But at the same time, there are moments where one guitar layer entirely drowns out the others — possibly an intentional choice that would work well in live performance, but it doesn’t translate quite as well to a pure audio experience. Despite some of the drawbacks to the recording itself, Shahi’s development and manipulation of an ostinato-based groove among the various guitars is endlessly rewarding.

The entire Microlocking suite takes the listener through a spectrum from most consonant to most abstract, and “Microlocking III” is certainly the most strange and esoteric. Performed by accordionist Matti Pulkki with Shahi on electronics, the piece moves through a number of dissonant and thorny musical figures — some extremely high energy, and others long and drawn out. The real pay off to the piece is its conclusion: we hear a dissonant melody that almost refers to polka, complemented by manipulated electronics, which then explodes into a flurry of note clusters before an abrupt ending. If anything, the polka moment could have lingered just a bit longer, although the collage framework of “Microlocking III” is one of its strongest features. The movement as a whole is bizarre and noisy and forward thinking in all of the best ways, but it also has a sense of humor that brings the whole suite full circle. Fun is truly at the heart of these compositions — as much as they wrestle with heady, musically academic ideas, they’re a blast to listen to, and it’s hard not to feel the energy and joy of the performers making this music.

Saman Shahi--Photo by Dahlia Katz

Saman Shahi–Photo by Dahlia Katz

The final track, something of a bonus track, is a remix of “Microlocking I” by producer Behrooz Zandi. In the remix, we hear the beginning of the piece unaltered before a drum beat is added and the piano tracks are increasingly sliced up and rearranged. Zandi creates entirely new grooves out of the original ostinato, and much like the developmental arc of the album, the remix gradually moves from relatively straightforward to increasingly abstract. While much of the album fuses disparate musical ideas into something new, Zandi’s remix achieves the same result in a much different way. The final minute has a devastatingly effective build and climax, really making the track a great cap to the whole album.

For those who already love microtonality, Microlocking effectively centers groove and rhythm while using unique pitch content to enhance the experience. But it’s also a great album for those who might be unsure about dipping their toes into this method of music making — not to suggest that Shahi’s music is a watered down version of microtonality, but because Shahi is so adept at presenting complex ideas in an easily accessible way. As three individual pieces, Microlocking works well, but when approached as a complete suite, it tells a cohesive story that is as emotionally exciting as it is analytically intriguing.


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