Dimensions d'Istanbul

Eric St-Laurent, guitar (Katzenmusik 01)

7 June 2009 3 stars

St-LaurentEric St-Laurent is a Montreal-born composer and guitarist. He has previously spent some years living in Berlin recording and performing with a number of different artists, and is currently based in Toronto.

Dimensions d'Istanbul sees him team up with percussionist Bikem Küçük and clarinettist/keyboardist Turgay Hikmet for a ten-part suite, composed by St-Laurent, inspired by the eponymous city. The Canadian met the two other performers while in Istanbul in 2006, and after composing the work, appropriately enough returned to that city to set it to record with them.

The style of the music broadly speaking locates the album within a world music idiom. But it might just as readily fit with a contemporary or ambient designation. The style is quite an individual one, with equal weight shouldered by composition and performance in moulding the final character taken by the suite.

Most of the pieces on the album are built around the foundation of St-Laurent's guitar. This acoustic guitar is utilised in different ways throughout, articulating diverse scales for high solos and oblique arpeggiated patterns, or striking natural harmonics and chords. This structural function of the guitar is built upon by the other two performers to conjure the texture of sound in play throughout.

The opening number, Taksim, launches us on the journey with some jolting, open whole-tone scale movements, their timing unpredictable, sounded on guitar and keyboard, with an occasional gong resounding, ushering the ear into the record and the imagination into the record's city. These spaced out scalar flourishes gradually coalesce into a semi-regular harmonic progression. The title track follows, with a more prominent percussion part driving the piece along in a regular and open groove, with Laurent's guitar soloing over it, and interpolated by menacing Eastern riffs played in unison on guitar and keyboard, accompanied by percussion resonance and synthesizer washes.

One's imagination can't help but drift with the progression of the suite through its successive and usually contrasting parts. Each of them intends to cast a different light on the city of Istanbul, to find a different route through it, in a like manner to Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésu in its shifting perspectives on a single object of consideration. The music invites the listener's transportation, as something of a tonic and lure to one walled into their cosy grey concrete Western environment, compassed by the general dearth of imagination. Boredom dreams of scaffolds, as somebody said, and the dream of exoticism peers through.

A feature of the record throughout is the admixing of Eastern harmonic elements with more normatively Western ones. In Les sept collines, for example, a repeated ostinato figure, on double-tracked guitar, orbiting around an Eastern scale, is accompanied by a synthesizer pad, lending the jutting notes of the guitar an unexpected partner. The heart of the music throughout the suite is to overlook such provisional generic boundaries, a spirit of adventure inhering in their stead. The soloing guitar, chiming scales and chugging percussion of Bosphore - Botmozoph admit all into their mix, the impulse towards conjunction in live performance, between different musicians, being the force of attraction guiding the musical thrust. Another case in point is when the mostly acoustic elements of Bosphore - Botmozoph are immediately followed in the next track, Le feu grec, by some tough DSP'ed computer rhythms, the electronic percussion driving along in a crunched up ball, to the accompaniment of minor pentatonic, Gamelan-esque percussion sounds on synthesizer.

Another way the music melds Western and Eastern compositional qualities is in the casting together of aperiodic rhythms – rhythm without any audible metre – with periodic pulsations on traditional drums. In La citerne basilique, for example, repeated notes on guitar and keyboard act in a sort of 'arhythmic', unpredictable fashion, familiar to listeners of contemporary classical music or free improvisation, all the while watched over by a regular pattering on drums.

A misstep in this reviewer's opinion comes with the purely electronic track, Le grand bazaar, which comes out of nowhere in the guise of a stray track from a Warp records sampler, with stretched and manic beats sliced together and stitched into a vocal sample that sounds like something from South Park. But then again, the complete ill-fitting randomness of it is the kind of thing I usually like, so maybe it's not such a bad thing.

This track segues back into the familiar territory mapped out on the rest of the material for the album's last two tracks. The unison melodic spurts on Yeralti Camii, as well as the rhythmic modulations, bring to mind the Mashavishnu Orchestra. Trois oiseaux ottomans ends the album in a bit of an anticlimax, initially sounding a bit too much like a studio jam. It detracts a little from the overall atmosphere swathed around the rest of the album.

Eric St-Laurent writes on the sleeve notes: 'I hope that this music will give you cause to day-dream for a moment or two.' An unassuming message, a refreshingly unpretentious sentiment, and an accurate summary of the music's effect.

By Liam Cagney