David Garland’s revelatory new release, Verdancy

David Garland is an eminence in the New York music world, a generous, prolific presence with whom people flock to work– including collaborations with John Zorn, Yoko Ono, Sufjan Stevens and Meredith Monk. He also hosted WNYC’s Spinning on Air for 28 years.

It is hard, really hard, to get the arms of your mind around the entirety of David Garland’s Verdancy, but well-worth the time spent failing. On four subtly differentiated volumes of experimental music (shipping as four beautifully packaged CDs in a branded box with a resealable fabric band), the veteran New York composer, writer and radio host conjures a profoundly coherent and surprising world of immersive sound.

And yet I’ve already misrepresented it, already failed. Keywords like “sound,” “experimental” and “immersive” are usually code for drones, sound objects and noise, not tunes. That is hardly the story here. There is plenty of song on Verdancy, an abundance of purposeful and melody-driven composition, elegant harmonic movement throughout, a concise chamber vignette for every long-form pattern study, near-fugues, tone poems and quite a few moments that require the word “pop” to represent fairly. Am I flailing? Very well, I am flailing. This music defies stylistic and qualitative description, but one must yet try.

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We’ll start by calling it two things:

1) Serious. Verdancy is contemporary classical music in a crossover tradition that we can trace back to Minimalism and, especially, the postmodern avant-garde of the ’80s, in which milieu Garland is a beloved and respected figure, both as a maker and as prolific advocate/critic. Verdancy is art song, drone-serene and drone-disturbed, palpable sound-for-sound’s-sake, texture-based composition, organic patterns and their dissolution.

Like most of the serious music of its era and in its traditions, it is lean, stringently cleansed of expressive cliché. It is played with discipline, awareness, spontaneity and a kind of cultivated naïveté, the sound of the composer acknowledging and undoing centuries of accumulated tradition and culture to get back to something close to pure music and first mind. “I studied hard/When we moved to the trees/So many things to unlearn,” Garland sings on “When We Moved to the Trees.”

2) New York. Verdancy is explicitly Garland’s response to and reflection on the experience of moving from the City to our verdant hills (returning, in a spiritual sense, to his rural youth), and it is a pastoral record in many respects: environmental in subject, reedy timbre and design. But this music could not exist apart from the boundary-blurring, globally aware impulse of the New York City of the ’80s and forward, when, in figures as diverse as Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Bill Laswell, art got all balled up with pop, the street and the world. On Verdancy, Garland sings of nature, but his tongue is as New York as “fuhgettaboutit.”

Verdancy is primarily and richly acoustic; but even that is misleading, and not just because there are some electronic birds amidst the choirs of clarinets, ocarinas, organ pipes, flutes, accordion and bowed psaltery. If Verdancy’s democratic colloquies of melody and texture can be said to have a lead voice, it would be the Kenji guitar: an electro/acoustic 12-string modified by Garland’s son Kenji Garland, transformed into an unpredictable and gesturally interactive resonant animal. The electronic components of the Kenji guitar do not themselves produce tones, but rather provoke them in the strings and wood of the instrument, inciting resonances, drones and controllable polyphonic feedback. If you, like me, are now wondering, “Where the hell can I get mine?” bear in mind that Garland himself had to borrow Sean Lennon’s to use on this record. Yeah.

As I mentioned above, David Garland is an eminence in the New York music world, a generous, prolific presence with whom people flock to work. He has, over the years, collaborated with John Zorn, Yoko Ono, Sufjan Stevens, Meredith Monk and many other names you might know – and usually on his turf, not theirs. While Verdancy is overwhelmingly played by Garland himself, the assists from big-name friends are many and – fittingly – heavy on the Hudson Valley locals. The brilliant composer and vocalist Iva Bittova is a frequent presence throughout. Two great progressive drummers, Otto Hauser and Mice Parade’s Adam Pierce, lend percussive support. Garland’s longtime friend Yoko Ono sings on the record, and her 1964 poem “Color Piece” provides the text of Verdancy’s first track. Buke and Gase’s Arone Dyer makes an appearance as well.

David Garland has made the music and its ample documentation available on Bandcamp, but Verdancy may be that rare case in which the physical media and packaging really help the listener make sense of what amounts to nothing less than a new world of revelatory music. $42 might seem a lot for a record, but when David Garland’s Verdancy arrives in your box, it’s Christmas for you.

For music and more information, visit https://davidgarland.bandcamp.com.

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