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George Sarah - Ossia Print E-mail
Tuesday, 08 April 2003
Transistor Recordings/Nail Distribution, 2003
| Performance 8.5 | Sound 7 |

ImageWhile George Sarah’s new album Ossia can certainly be enjoyed on its own merits – or while reading, conversing, swimming or seducing (to name a few activities that suggest themselves as the music flows) – it proves ideal accompaniment for writing narrative material, whether prose or script.

This may be because the 14 haunting instrumental pieces on Ossia were all originally used as the score for the Discovery Channel’s “Plastic Surgery Before and After” documentary. It is soundtrack music that evoke particular emotions, conjuring all sorts of specific mental images – in this reviewer’s case, lots swimming deep sea creatures and astral phenomena, with lovers on a bridge and a ‘50s diner thrown in – without ever forcing the issue. In some ways, “Ossia” feels like the aural equivalent of seeing an uncaptioned still photo and finding yourself moved to make up a story to suit the visual composition.

Sarah performs all the tracks here, which are primarily played on a synthesizer, though real guitars and what sounds like other stringed instruments appear from time to time.

The album opens with the title track, which has a beautiful resonance that is reminiscent of Clannad’s charming, quizzical score for “The Angel and the Soldier Boy,” with a liquid quality that is enhanced rather than interrupted by percussive brushes and a shimmering effect that sounds like something that might accompany a celestial cinematic transformation.

On Track Two’s “Silhouette,” single piano notes give off a comforting vibe in front of a wall of synthesizer purring, with a deliberate, percussive refrain that consists of two hard beats, followed by two brushes, starting out on a contemplative frame that becomes friskier and brighter as it grows.

“The T.V. Is In My Eye,” Track Three, starts out with an agitated back-and-forth jump between two minor chords that are joined by a rap-scratch effect and quick percussion for a flavor that sounds very hip and a bit furtive, like something that might underscore the efforts of the heroine on “Alias,” before finally giving vent to a burst of kinetic, shimmering melody.

Track Four’s “Aida” is, title notwithstanding, not in the least operatic. A rolling percussion mimics rainfall, backing a gentle, regretful tune that has violin-like strains so expressive that we can easily envision lyrics to go with the cadence. This track sounds very much of a piece with Sarah’s work on last year’s album “Music For Elevators,” on which he collaborated with Anthony Stewart Head.

“Where Is Huggy Bear?” begins with a bit of enchantment, as high chiming single notes are joined by clicking, squeaking and blipping electronica that sound like communications from a happy robot, laying down a rush of hummingbird-quick rhythm as sustained chords hover above.

Track Six, entitled (no kidding) “Source Cue 3,” begins with something that sounds not unlike a playfully eerie scales exercise before quivering strings and synthesized percussion, including an element that sounds like a rhythmic ripping sound, come in for an urgent, suspenseful track that broadly references Bernard Hermann’s work for Alfred Hitchcock.

“Grey World Under Electric Light” on Track Seven puts an idiosyncratic mechanical whoosh beside hopeful plucked guitar notes and a happy synthesizer keyboard riff for an effect that is mostly delightful and ever so slightly alarming.

On Track Eight, “1920,” an African percussive rhythm briskly contrasts with sustained synthesizer notes and smooth violins in a harmonious blend that simultaneously inspires twinned optimism and mournfulness.

Track Nine’s “Ballet and Surgery” adds little hissing valve effects to gliding, delicate synthesizer work, adding up to a feel that is paradoxically mechanical and organic.

Track 10, “Noh Dancers,” begins with almost folk-style guitar picking before otherworldly yet warm synth joins in for a quietly rapturous effect.

Track 11, “Horses,” has a texture (though not a melody line) that somewhat recalls Gordon Lightfoot’s “Your Love’s Return,” of all things, in the way it again combines acoustic guitar and synthesizer.

Track 12’s “Minor Key Interjection” has a metallic maracas effect, deliberate hiss, individual synthesizer notes and a “bridge” of intentional distortion before the music resumes in more anxious manner, with a sound like sand running over a hard surface, adding up to an especially distinctive, unusual cut.

Track 13, “Source Cue 2,” sounds both hip and retro, with a slyly grunting “heh heh” rubber band pop twanging along with the more melodic synthesizer effects.

“Drowning Room” concludes the album with warm synth and strings surging forward with urgent percussion in a lively cascade of individual notes over chords, some soothing and some distressed, fading away to leave the stark percussion, which ends abruptly.

Because Sarah in concert, with his plethora of electronic equipment, sounds as though he’s in a studio even when he’s on stage, it’s just about impossible to say how “live” this recording feels. The stereo mix is completely enveloping, though it’s hard to determine in certain places whether certain effects are due to deliberate synthesizer instrumentation or added space in the recording. Either way, “Ossia” is a captivating work that powerfully stimulates both the emotions and the imagination.

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