The late psychologist and LSD guru Timothy Leary maintained that the use of the drug depended upon “set and setting”. That was his way of saying simply that not every situation was suitable for an experience.
Despite the context, these are wise, if truistic words in any part of our lives; it applies very well to any musical experience. It is a particularly important reality to remember when one is listening to any instrumental synthesizer music along the lines of that composed by Jonas Reinhardt. His album Powers of Audition exemplifies the challenge placed before every denizen or artisan of electronica: how does it stand on its own with integrity without degenerating into monotony, self-parody, or meaningless noodling? The key is understanding the place for the music. In the case of Jonas Reinhardt, who hails from San Francisco and has studied synthesis at Harvard, the particularity of his music is its ability to work both (presumably) in the club and in the car. In the latter setting, in particular, one can be moved by the hypnotic directions the music takes, and simultaneously be patient enough to listen to the textures which are so essential to the genre.
Reinhardt has a knack for accentuating the capabilities of the synthesizer without necessarily falling into clichés, and clichés are the synth instrumentalist’s worst enemies. The manner in which the music progresses within each track is more considered than most, but for this reviewer, much of it slid into a miasma of similarity. In keeping with set and setting, though, this is less irritating on an early morning drive through the country. At its best, the music actually achieves the alchemy of true minimalism in the tradition of Eno, even if Reinhardt is a totally different experience. One is taken from one place to another almost unnoticeably. The effect is psychotropic and satisfying. The best piece for this effect is the last on the album, “Wastrel Eyelid”, which starts with an hypnotic triad arpeggio, and moves the listener through texture after texture by the hand to the end, a downright stimulating orchestra of synth arpeggiation and white noise.
The use of other instrumentation helps to inoculate against tedium.. The work of drummer Damon Palermo is particularly satisfying. His simple but effective stick work on “Atomic Bomb Living” drives even further a piece that develops themes carefully through the ostinato so indicative to the form. Both this and the title track feature are the most rhythmic in the set and work the best for the themes and atmospheres that Reinhardt elicits.
Jonas Reinhardt is not without a sense of his place or humour. Listen to the very beginning and end of the disc to hear his naked oscillators go through their paces with a nod to the origin of the form, winding down at the end like the HAL 9000 singing “On a Bicycle Built for Two” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the right place, at the right time, Powers of Audition is a more captivating piece of instrumental synth than the norm. Its best moments border on the therapeutic. As is the case with all of its genre, however, in the wrong place at the wrong time, a restless push of the “forward” button on the iPod awaits.