[16 January 2012]
Bill Ryder-Jones’ new album, If…, is an homage to the Italo Calvino novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Calvino’s book has a loose, explosive structure where exciting and completely unrelated tales keep spiraling out of the original. We read the opening chapter of one book after another, all gripping, but never the chapter of the book that the narrator supposedly wants to be reading—a lost great novel. It’s a wildly imaginative book that serves to honor literary form (the adventure, the thriller, the romance) and also comment on it and push it in new, more open-ended directions. Calvino clearly had a blast writing the thing: The prose is witty and clever, self-effacing and self-promoting, but above all it conveys joy, the work of a man who loves to tell stories. Basing music on a novel is always a tough endeavor. How does one get across the meaning of words with melody? If…, largely constructed of beautiful instrumental pieces, touches on the melancholy, romantic, and contemplative. Ryder-Jones succeeds in composing lovely music, but he fails to capture the spirit of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler—Ryder-Jones lacks Calvino’s cheeky, playful spirit and inventiveness. The album is written like a film soundtrack, and it is a great soundtrack for a film, just not a movie adaptation of the book that inspired it.
Most of If… is instrumental. There is little percussion; stately pianos and strings dominate, with the occasional addition of guitar accents. The title track feels questioning and hesitant at first, until about half way through, when it becomes more determined, as if the song is now committing to follow through to the rest of the album. This leads nicely into “The Reader (Malbork)”, a gorgeous waltz-like piece. Later in the album, “The Flowers #3 (Lotus)” oscillates between its gentle opening and a swirl of strings, piano, and diving violins. The final track, “Some Absolute End (The End)”, is a perfect finale that mirrors the beginning, with open-ended keyboard playing that evolves gradually into something satisfyingly resolute and tuneful.
During “Enlace”, Ryder-Jones uses a crunching electric guitar to ground the string section. Suddenly, he transforms the song into an electric guitar battle over heavy drumming. This moment most reflects Calvino’s unpredictability and the energy that pervades his literary work. However, this part fits poorly with the tone of the rest of the album, which tends towards the sadder, lovelorn, thoughtful end of the spectrum.
If… is a wonderful piece of music. While it does not necessarily evoke its namesake, it achieves a similar effect in the end – You find yourself inventing movie scenes that fit the music, just like Calvino entices you to imagine the plots for all those unresolved books. Unlike other artists who attempt cinematic sweep (such as M83), Bill Ryder-Jones does not force his vision on you and overwhelm you with ego and ambition. He sneaks his way softly and tenderly into your consciousness, inviting you to complete his work rather than battering down your door with it. Hopefully an enterprising filmmaker will make use of him as it would be great to hear Ryder-Jones’ music pouring out of movie speakers, and to compare the images other people link to his music with the images that spring up, most welcome, inside your own head.