Defining Todd Reynolds’ music isn’t just difficult, it’s also unnecessary. Whatever time you spend trying to decide what brand of post-, neo-, modern-, or avant-whatever he could be would be a waste. You can easily turn that headache into enjoyment by stepping back, thinking of the sound purely as “music”, and just absorbing all of the pieces from there. And there is quite a bit going on in the 94 minutes of Outerborough, so much that an evenly spread discussion of each track could make this thing go on for pages. So as we go along, I will try not to dwell on every specific.
Even though I just discouraged the practice of categorizing music, we’re going to have to give Todd Reynolds’ music some sort of tag if only to give you a reference point. He is a chiefly a violinist and many of these tracks, though not all, are contemporary classical concept pieces centered on his instrument. There is a lot of electronic manipulation at play, and some of these passages can’t be mimicked live by a human musician. Some motifs behave like pop with catchy brain worms, while others can function like jazz or world music by weaving vamps with improvised solos. But most of the time, the proceedings can safely be called moody classical with elongated forms taking your ability to recognize predictable patterns out to lunch. His professional affiliation with Bang on a Can has likely informed the modern edges to his music, and his latest project feels like a microcosm of his old job.
Outerborough is a double album and the first disc is made up of seven Reynolds originals. The first things you hear are the distorted, processed beats that are the backbone to “Transamerica”. Already, it’s difficult to know what to think. But this is also the fun of Todd Reynolds’s music. You can revel in the ambiguity he has given you, a free pass for being noncommittal. If “The Solution” dips a toe into India, then the following “End of Day” is a free flowing rubato through the heavens. It could be said though that the main calling card for disc one is the sleek sound of classical forms that are not quite minimal, but also not quite so open-ended. It’s a strange and delicate balance that nearly gets toppled over (in a good way) by the breakneck-paced “Centrifuge”, an odd little ditty played by something called the LEMUR GuitarBot. Reynolds’ press release states that it is “unexecutable by a human.”
Outerborough‘s second disc is made up of pieces written by others for Todd Reynolds to perform. Typically, the presence of music not composed by the performer gives them a chance to leave their comfort zone for a while, but I’m not convinced Reynolds had a comfort zone to begin with. Still, changeups abound. Overdubbing and what I assume is digital delay are noticeable tools, though the overall impression that these were written for solo violin remains. Composer Evan Ziporyn admits in the liner notes that he automatically thinks of Todd Reynolds when writing for violin, and everyone involved in disc two must have a similar thought. Between Phil Kline, Michael Gordon, Paul de Jong, Michael Lowenstern, David T. Little, Nick Zammuto, Ken Thomson, Paula Matthusen, and David Lang, you don’t think they would write for any old chump fiddler, do you?
Two selections of the second CD grab one’s attention on the first go-round. The less obvious one is Matthusen’s “The End of an Orange”, which is part manipulated spoken word and part manipulated violin. Abi Basch’s text, musings on oranges in the morning and a plea to appreciate art, abandons the mix just a third of the way in as Reynolds’ weepy bowing competes with his own hyperkinetic overdub that sails off into near-silence. The other noticeable work is “and the sky was still there”, a tense seven-minute ride that functions as a backdrop to a woman telling the story of her struggles being a lesbian in the army. At times, the post-rock racket can almost overpower the narration, perhaps as an effort to get you to listen to her story more closely. Repeated listens bring the details of the music to the surface since the tale of the impersonality of the military and confusion of sexuality is already fresh in your mind. It’s like a more intense edition of This American Life, when Ira Glass or whatever mumble-mouth essayist is shutting up and letting their subject do the talking.
Outerborough is a rich album. If you have a taste for the electronic side of sprawling instrumental music that specializes in the cross-pollination of many ethnicities while not straying too far from the classical idiom, then there is much to like here. If none of that sounds good, then there is much to dislike. But like all risqué art, it’s difficult to remain indifferent in the face of such bold ideas. And in the end, maybe that’s this mammoth album’s greatest virtue: slicing through all of the indifference out there.