If you had to quickly and neatly pigeonhole Eyvind Kang for anything, it would probably be his reputation as a composer and performer of contemporary classical music that often sees the light of day courtesy of the Ipecac and Tzadik labels. But somewhere along the way of Kang’s 20-plus year career, the celebrated violinist made an ambient album for the Abduction label named Live Low to the Earth, in the Iron Age. Fifteen years later, he has returned to the same label with a similar intention, albeit on a smaller scale.
Plainlight is a vinyl-only EP that sheds Iron Age‘s lowland flavor in exchange for deep meditations from somewhere further east. The recording personnel is an ever-ebbing flow and the instruments used are appropriately no-frills. All that gets in the way is Kang’s description of the project: “I found that the ‘weight’ of sounds seemed to evaporate the compositions. The last thing I wanted to make was a traditional shoegaze recording.” Hang on, do compositions really evaporate on traditional shoegaze recordings? What is a traditional shoegaze recording anyhow? Are we talking about Loveless or something earthier? And is this “weight” an equal opportunity deterrent, or does that only apply to acoustic instruments?
Let the music do the talking. Plainlight is an attractive yet austere looking 12-inch with the title track and “Bay of Fundy” on one side, and “Sanjaya the Skeptic” taking up the entirety of the second side. It’s hard to accuse even the longest song of overstaying its welcome. The music on the first side was recorded by only a handful of musicians, yet there’s a full-blown wind and string ensemble consisting of no less than eight musicians and a conductor. But whether a track features three or nine people, all three selections of Plainlight are very similar in atmosphere — and Plainlight is all about atmosphere. There are no virtuoso flights of fancy or obtuse compositional tricks. However you may define a “traditional” shoegaze recording, Plainlight strives to reside in the same class. And due to sheer lack of effort, it succeeds as a crossover effort.
Opener “Plainlight” plays the art of the slow simmer perfectly as a simple three note pattern is plucked out in steady time. This gradually turns into a backdrop for progression in the most minimal sense. Lower strings drive the rhythm as the subtlest of synthesizers colors the sky. “Bay of Fundy” is a more impressionistic piece, with the instruments gathering in a light harmonic haze, leading the listener to wonder just what kind of mood they can expect. The fact that this unasked question is never answered is another testament to the subtlety that Kang and company can employ. It’s for the full scale “Sanjaya the Skeptic” where things turn a shade darker. Like the title track, it deals in slowly evolving cycles that appear in due time and only in due time — at least the fir the first half. The back half of the 14-minute piece finds a rise in noisy percussion, uneasy drone harmonies, and discordant winds that ascend like a gathering storm. I do not know if this piece is named after Sanjaya Belatthiputta or not, but, if it is? Well, bullseye — I guess.
A release like Plainlight is not a usual Eyvind Kang release, so it will likely be a while before we hear another shoegaze/ambient album from him. On the one hand, that’s a shame since Plainlight is such a pleasure. On the other hand, the infrequenct appearances of these albums might make them more special. Either way, we now know that Eyvind Kang is a musician who can comfortably operate in the modern classical and the drone worlds. For all I know, this can be just one of many crossovers he has within him.