EYVIND KANG – Grass Study

From Eyvind Kang’s album Sonic Gnostic (2021)

A truly stunning piece of work, Eyvind Kang’s “Sonic Gnostic” radically bridges the worlds of minimal composition, rigorous experimentation, and improvised forms, in ways that locks Kang in the mind as one of America’s most original thinkers in the contemporary landscape of sound. Capturing Kang live on stage in Los Angeles, joined by an incredible ensemble of players, including Bill Frisell and Jessika Kenney, from the first sounding to the last, the album’s remarkable sense of minimalist restraint, airy space, and delicate interplay, entirely reorients standard expectations of how improvised music and group collaboration might be realized and approached. Issued on double LP and CD, it’s one of those records that calls you to return to it, again and again.

There are few paths as fascinating and diverse within the contemporary landscape of music as that of Eyvind Kang. Primarily a viola player, but often stretching his instrumental pallet to include violin, tuba, keyboards and numerous other, since his emergence during the mid 1990s he has deftly bridged the worlds of jazz, free improvisations, modern classical, noise, and rock, working with artists like Sun City Girls, Joe McPhee, Wayne Horvitz, Laurie Anderson, Blonde Redhead, Arto Lindsay, Aki Onda, John Zorn, William Hooker, Animal Collective, Sunn O))), Ikue Mori, among a seemingly countless number of others, all the while sculpting a body of solo work that re-establishes the terms of minimal music through a visionary approach to harmonic interplay, played against a counterpoint of extended approaches to timbral techniques.

Sonic Gnostic, Kang’s latest full-length, emerges in sharp contrast to his last LP, Ajaeng Ajaeng, issued by Ideologic Organ in 2020, forgoing its densely layered dissonance and textures, for sparse interventions of tonality within a spacious, airy auditory expanse. Capturing a performance at RedCat in Los Angeles, it encounters the composer playing kemanche and acoustic guitar, joined for three works – Binah, Grass, and Plainlight – by an incredible ensemble of players, Jessika Kenney on vocals, Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Timothy Young on electric and acoustic guitars, Diego Gaeta on electric piano, Tim Tsang on piano, Louis Coy on clarinet and flute, Breana Gilcher on oboe and flute, and Jesse Quebbeman Turley on drums, with one other work, Grass study, played solo by Adrienne Varner on piano.

Arguably more than other feature, what sets Sonic Gnostic apart is the remarkable contrast between the scale of Kang’s ensemble – nine players in total – and the album’s sparseness and restraint, immediately illuminating the rigor and purpose of the composer’s vision. Beginning with a glacial body of long tones, slowly penetrated by a gathering collective of intervention by the group, before giving way to a stunning rendering of Grass study, through which notes are allowed to achingly hang in the air via an organic sense of sustain, often offering the impression that the piece is played by a single player, rather than a substantial group. This minimal temperament logically continues across the duration of Adrienne Varner’s realization of Grass study on piano, before finding a brilliant middle ground with the slowly unfolding melodic temperaments of the album’s final track, Plainlight, culminating as one of the most beautiful, striking and memorable albums we’ve heard all year.