Album Reviews

Matthew Bourne – Irrealis

(The Leaf Label) UK release date: 27 May 2022

By turns unsettling, melodic and playful, the songs draw us in to a melancholy music-box twilight world where the natural order is slightly out of kilter

Matthew Bourne - Irrealis It all started when Matthew Bourne threw some sweets into the piano at school; this was where he started learning the fundamentals of prepared piano. For those unfamiliar, prepared piano is where the metal piano strings are muted, dampened and distorted by inserting, attaching or resting objects (screws, blu-tac, material, metal) to produce dissonance and percussive elements into the playing.

 The American avant-garde composer, John Cage, made the practice more well-known, and has since been employed by everyone from Tom Waits via Hauschka to Aphex Twin to create a Twin Peaks audio world, where pieces are melodically and sinisterly skewed.

Bourne has been fearlessly unpredictable as an explorer of sound, and gained notoriety through a performance piece that saw him destroy a piano with a sledgehammer. Thankfully, he has also fashioned a less destructive career since 2003, releasing over 20 albums, collaborations and film soundtrack work that covers a diverse array of styles, genres and instrumentation. As Bourne puts it himself, he has a burning desire to make music on anything old, broken or infirm.

Irrealis was recorded live, in one take with no overdubs, as playful improvisations taking their lead from the theme of ‘first idea’ in tuning into whatever first unintentionally arises without any preconceived notion of destination. This is high-wire performance that bares itself in its vulnerable yet confrontational way; to say ‘here I am, deal with it’.

Shri begins like the warped dew on a sun-dappled morning, where its hopeful melodic runs are underpinned by darker subtle elements, discordant and pushing in from the background. This runs almost seamlessly into Asaf, that stretches into overlapping runs while maintaining a gentle melodic flow. Likewise, Jane feels like its slipped its earthly moorings, as it drifts from spacious notes cycling around an orbit both beautiful and arbitrary, suggesting a yearning resolved with grace.

By contrast, Dusan is playful, sprightly and utterly discordant in its glee; where the melody gets detuned into single note-hammering jazz. Laurent continues the jazz theme but with a scatty, binary feeling that notes seem to be flung between extremes with no room for a nuanced middle-ground. Snaky runs on the piano take a lumpen flight over percussive notes grasping for a sense of order.

A slow descending/ascending motif anchors the first movement of Alice, before it slips into the kind of percussive piano favoured by Aphex Twin (most notably on Drukqs). Like some battered music-box tune, the melody is simple, but warped, and becomes almost foreboding in its monomania when it returns in the second half.

Armando ushers the end with a sprightly workout running the gamut of the keyboard and almost beyond as if there aren’t enough notes to contain it. The slippery blasts of melody tussle with each other with few breathing spaces leaving the album shimmering, fully woken, in its wake.

There’s a lot packed into these seven sparse tracks and 23 minutes; by turns unsettling, melodic and playful, these tweaks pique the ear’s interest into a melancholy music-box twilight world where the natural order is slightly out of kilter. Irrealis is the sound of a master improviser having fun and inviting us to sit by his ear to hear things tantalisingly unresolved.

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More on Matthew Bourne
Matthew Bourne – Irrealis
Franck Vigroux & Matthew Bourne – Radioland
Intersect Festival @ Vortex/ Servant Jazz Quarters/ Café OTO, London
Matthew Bourne – Montauk Variations