Liila album review


It’s a photograph of a synthesizer that first caught the attention of Steven Whiteley. In 2018, Whiteley, a composer living at the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico, came across an unusual Instagram post from the Bay Area’s Green Gulch Farm Zen Center: Danielle L. Davis’ modular synthesizer, sitting on the porch of a yurt. Soon after, Whiteley traded her life in Santa Fe for a retired Marin County residence, bringing little more than a laptop, MIDI controller, and classical guitar. There, the two musicians bonded around the philosophy of Pauline Oliveros Deep listening, which poses drone music as a path to heightened states of consciousness, and stuck in their free time. Eventually, both left Green Gulch for Oregon’s Great Vow Zen Monastery on the banks of the Columbia River; having had time to pursue their creative practice, they focused on their sound, performing smooth improvisational music on piano and electronics for the monks and their fellow students. In 2019, after their respective residences ended, Davis and Whiteley moved to Portland, where they used a multitude of acoustic and electronic instruments to bring ideas that had germinated in the monastic environment to life.

Despite its genesis, the music of Solidity of mind, Liila’s first album, is not always serene. Placid electronic tones are offset by reel synthesizer melodies; Rhythmic xylophone patterns punctuate the breathable chorale pads reminiscent of 1980s sampler presets. They invoke a rich, unpredictable and often surprisingly lively sound. On “Nazīr”, a hailing beat of sticks, harp and bells approaches a arte povera take a hip-hop rhythm. Whatever the layman may assume that electronic music based on Zen practices should sound, this 28-minute album often turns expectations upside down; it’s as playful as it is respectful, and the intoxicating results push the boundaries of what “meditative” music can be.

New-age sensibilities are at the heart of two of the record’s most captivating tracks. “Not One Not Two” rolls up on synth tablecloths with a long sinuous piano fantasy on a chatty background of birdsong. It is difficult to discern exactly how many elements are in play: the synthesizers turn into the cries of birds; the piano can be the work of two or four hands. Perhaps this is the reason for the title, which paraphrases a principle that the influential monk Sōtō Zen Shunryu Suzuki Roshi described as “the unity of duality”: The track is full of disparate but complementary elements, oscillating between buzzing union and sweet discord. “Whale Song for No One” is also adrift and even more complex, interspersed with robot chirps, virtual chorus and cicada hum. With its thrilling marimba and bells, it feels like a response to Visible Cloaks’ take on ambient Japanese lore, while the title suggests a flashing awareness of the new age cliché.

A few pieces are particularly energetic. A kinetic explosion reminiscent of the hyperrealistic environments of Oneohtrix Point Never, “Osha” is a rock tumbler full of small jerky sounds – jerky vocals, claps, castanets, laser rototoms – polished by reverberation to a dull glow. “Frozen Islands”, one of the highlights of the album, once again resembles Visible Cloaks pastiches of oriental electronic styles. What gives the song a fresh feel is its lively sense of movement, with airy pads, pentatonic scales, and courageous percussion detail, all pulling like pistons on a cartoon engine.

The opening “Appa Wú Wéi” is the best and most enveloping song on the album, featuring the mesh of chimes, marimba, wordless vocals and spiral synth tracks that give much of the record its undulating shape. Benchmarks are not particularly new; the undulating mallets are reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 musicians, while the gradually widened layers suggest a tradition of cosmic electronic music ranging from the Berlin school to the Emeralds. The magic is in the movement of the music: both calm and invigorating, with lively arpeggios spinning on a measured andante rhythm. There is a sense of clarity in its brilliant overtones and rapid glide forward. The title’s “wú wéi” refers to the principle of “effortless action”, and the song’s development mimics the movements of natural forces like wind and water; it is easy to imagine the scenery of the Marin Headlands, the burning fog of the green hills that descend to the Pacific Ocean, where the waves wear away the rock. The song is radiant and full of joy: the sound of two spirits flowing in sync with each other and with everything around them.


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