Cutler garden aether

Grant Cutler

Hedge Path
Robert Stillman (saxophone)
Matt Evans (vibraphone)
Zosha Warpeha (voice)
Eliot Krimsky (synthesizers)
Grant Cutler (piano, field recordings)
No recording details provided
Reviewed as WAV download
Æther Sound [29]

I last came across Grant Cutler with his album Self Portrait (review) and, having much liked his subtle blend of electronics and real instruments, was happy to be presented with Garden for review by the innovative label Æther Sound: “electronic sounds to peel open your mind” based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Garden is available as a digital album for download or streaming, and you can buy it as a cassette tape, a medium which currently seems to be both retro and fashionable at the same time. I dusted off my Nakamichi deck for the full ‘80s revival experience after my copy had very kindly been sent by the composer but was sad to find it entirely unresponsive. I cannot therefore comment on the quality of the pre-dubbed tape, but I am sure it’s fine. What has been handy is the covering letter that came with the tape, in which Cutler mentions that this is “a collection of heavily ambient instrumental compositions created in collaboration with some of my favorite musicians”, and that this is an “impressionistic piece, created over the course of two vertiginous years of pandemic weirdness.” The press release includes words such as meditative, spare, patient and minimal, with Cutler disarmingly summing it up as “my idealized little garden.”

I love treatments that transform instruments so that you are not sure quite what is actually creating certain sonorities. There is no specification of who is playing on which track and of course there are saxophone/reed and piano sounds that can be plucked from the textures, but there are hazy and suggestive sounds everywhere that keep you guessing. Bellflowers is underpinned by a warm bed of sound that might be synthesizer-sourced but might also be a low steel drum filtered through an epic quantity of reverb and filtering of one kind or another. Overdubbed nocturnal insects, multitracked saxophones and all kinds of stuff emerge from an attractive harmonic basis to make this an appealing start to the album. Pentaque has a greater forward momentum, with what sounds like ambulant animals pacing on a dusty path that creates an asymmetrical rhythmic ostinato over which a pulsing piano and wind-chime vibraphone cast their spell. Airy saxophone notes spread longer lines with single notes, embellished by a recessed vocal contribution, and the final minute or so propels us discomfortingly into nature.

Flycatcher has soft-edged piano and some kind of plucking action setting up a profile of sonority over which closely recorded saxophone improvisation contrast and converse with more distant ruminations. Hedge Path uses the same tonality in its opening piano notes, and its slow unfolding is another nocturnal-feel exploration of that garden space, with birdsong chatter echoing a little scraped piano string motto, and insects enhancing an atmosphere of outdoor-ness, the track ending with a gentle little free-jazz improv moment. Oleaceae is the last official track, with piano and other distant rattles setting up a sound-bed over which the vibraphone elaborates, and bowed vibraphone notes take on the role previously taken by the saxophone. Its atmosphere is further developed with ethereal vocals and prominent birdsong which, in my version of the download, all stops rather abruptly. With the download there is a 5-minute unlisted bonus track with birdsong and a purring cat and someone’s breathing while asleep doing lead vocals, with what sound like flocks of geese in the background over a slow electronic undulation.

If you like Brian and Roger Eno and maybe Daniel Lanois and Jon Hassell, then Grant Cutler’s Garden will be a welcome space to visit. The whole thing has a handmade feel to it which is a refreshing change from the usual slick production values, and while the cassette has no mention of Dolby in its mastering you won’t be worried by tape hiss, such is the open-air nature of these pieces.

Dominy Clements

Availability: bandcamp