Monroe GoldenAlabama Places
Ellen Tweiten [piano] - Kurt Carpenter [ microtonal keyboard]
Innova Recordings 680. Duration: 74:13

01. Iron Road [6:16]
02. North Shelby [5:22]
03. Natchez Trace [3:03]
04. 2365 Cahaba Road [5:44]
05. In Pell City I [2:46]
06. In Pell City II [1:59]
07. In Pell City III [3:45]
08. In Pell City IV [1:33]
09. In Pell City V [1:44]
10. Tensaw [2:26]
11. Demopolis [3:24]
12. Montevallo [4:44]
13. Coosa Basin [5:52]
14. Piedmont [5:50]
15. Scarham Creek [7:07]
16. Section 16 [12:03]

I’m used to wonderful things coming out of Minnesota label Innova from St Paul, and I almost tend to expect something out of the ordinary whenever a package from them slips through the mail slot in my Scandinavian door… and for sure, Innova outdid itself this time, with the CD Alabama Places, with compositions by Monroe Golden from the countryside of the state of Alabama. For one thing, the character of sound that come out of the mix of piano and microtonal keyboard is enough in itself to catch my attention. Secondly, the method that Golden has laid down for these works kind of wring sounds out of their midstream flow, bending, bulging and stretching, to sound a wee bit off, a little bit strange, aurally diverging, building a tickling tension, in a way that keeps the act of listening absolutely alert and focused. This music has a way of prying open hidden rooms in your listening, which you didn’t know even existed. Golden teaches you something about hearing and about sound.

Let me quote exactly what the booklet says about these works:

Alabama Places is a set of twelve duets for piano and microtonal keyboard, the fruit of an introspective four-year journey. As the title implies, each work is somehow connected to a place – some with strong personal ties, others recently discovered yet no less inspiring. If the choice of represented place is serendipitous, the microtonal structure is completely preconceived. The pieces serve as studies in the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but in overtone-based harmony rather than key relationships. The keyboard is detuned by an interval between 4 and 48 cents, in 4-cent increments, for each of the twelve pieces. Thus, the entire set explores twelve different 24-note scales made up of two asymmetrical 12-note equal-tempered scales. Available pitches at a given moment correspond to overtone relationships from fundamental frequencies that also shift in 4-cent increments.

How’s that, for a starter! The music, says the booklet, has been regarded as “delightfully disorienting” – which I believe is right on the money! It s bewildering, as the music seems to drift out of phase and focus, falling off the rail, only to appear in another focus, on another rail, and all in the utmost beauty and elegance!

I don’t think it’s practical for me to explain too much about the places connected to each piece. Instead I’ll just let my hearing guide me through my impressions of a few of the works, just to give you an idea about the mindset of this collection.

Track 1. Iron Road.

The swaying, out of focus feeling – a bit drowsy, slightly intoxicated: a tightrope walker having had a drink before setting out! – is apparent right from the outset. The wobbling melody line, with piano and what may sound like a harpsichord (but is the microtonal keyboard), keeps on urgently, but the instruments, though simultaneous, don’t seem to connect real well; don’t seem to care much about each other – at times… - until they join forces in a shadow play, instantly taking each other’s places, in a hoquetus manner, or syncopating beats here and there, in effect achieving a stumbling, erratic, stop-and-start feeling, fast ahead, feet stumbling in front of each other, but somehow managing to stay up and keep going in a falling-forward motion. Fun – and rhythmically as well as tonally startling!

Track 2. North Shelby.

Don’t know what this reminds me of the most right at the outset: Ross Bolleter’s ragged Australian Outback bar piano, worn down outside the shed through forty years of draught and blistering sunshine and insects – or some austere bars from La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Bösendorfer Imperial in his New York City Dream House… but I know that this music fascinates me way beyond my normal dutiful listening posture! After those first nauseating seasick bewilderments, the piano and the keyboard stomp ahead in a marching, stuttering tour-de-force of an amphetamine addict in the jagged wake of many sleepless nights. Crazy and wonderful music, a wicked distorting mirror ragtime! It’s ecstatic, yet, in a funny and almost incomprehensible way, orderly! Wow!

Track 3. Natchez Trace.

A lovely, lucid and playful pattern dances in a spiraling motion from off the desert floor up amongst fluffy Magical Mystery Tour clouds, and there surely is a Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds way inside this tampering with our perception, in some kind of wayward, spiritual way, and I sense a wry smile hinted in the corner of a mouth, hehe!
The tempo, starting out relaxed, slow, almost searching its way, picks up as the twosome gets denser, finally moving along, attached to each other blotting-paper-tight! Trickling beads of notes get together to densities of joint keyboard efforts, in a tight, mouth-to-mouth musical conversation/consternation! Monroe Golden’s compositions are every bit as complex and illusionistic as Conlon Nancarrow’s
Studies for Player Piano. Raging!

Track 16. Section 16.

Let me quote the composer’s text about this final composition, which also is the longest by far; 12 minutes:

Section 16 (Township 17, Range 3 East) is the legal description of sixteen 40-acre blocks in Southern St. Clair County that encompass much of the community where I grew up, and where I presently live. This is the final piece composed for the Alabama Places project. The work is in eleven divisions corresponding loosely to the other eleven duets, and is intended to serve as an anchor for the full set of works. The keyboard is tuned flat by only 4 cents for this piece.

Beginning in a runaway train fashion, hoquetus style again, wrangling its way, cartoonish, Daddy Longlegish, down winding serpentine tracks, the tune, after a while, comes to a near halt, the microtonal keyboard in a toy organ guise, the piano uttering short, conversative gushes… and so it continues, more varying than inside former pieces. When the tune picks up momentum again, it comes on like a child, playfully walking with one foot in the gutter, one foot on the sidewalk – and, come to think of it, that’s a useful metaphor for the bulk of this wistful, witty and playful music of Monroe Golden.

Later on the keyboard is dressed in a harpsichord veil, while the piano talks in hard, guttural persuasions, still hoquetus style (gutter and sidewalk!).

Golden’s music swings irresistibly, on account of this lovely turn-taking, this hoquetus limp that bends the rhythm slightly out of shape, and this odd tuning in micro-steps that bends our hearing this-a-way and that, having time and space bulge and flex. Irresistible music, full of with and beauty!