Thanks to Joel Taylor and the Spectropol label, I know now what “xenharmonic” means. Taylor offers nine tracks on Night Stories, largely influenced by the sound, style, and non-traditional tuning of the Indonesian gamelan. This may be a difficult hurdle for casual listeners, but I don’t feel that Taylor is interested in casual listeners. The initial sensation, as presented in the opener, “Forest Creatures and Their Plans,” is a collection of jumbling, clattering, off-key notes–but it’s just that the “standard” sound of a scale is so ingrained in us as listeners that the apparent atonality (it isn’t) jars us. Yet across the course of the nine tracks on Night Stories, as ear and mind attune to this revision of our understanding, uncertainty bends toward acceptance. Taylor moves between active, clattering tracks and softer, near-ambient drifts as he goes, and there is a hearable through-line as he recalls and reworks elements of his musical phrasings. The sharp, hurrying, harpsichord-sounding notes of “Forest Creatures” are restated in fresh form with “Inner Melody 1,” which follows it. It feels like Taylor introducing us to his variations, and the disc provides from there. I like how the jarring tones at the start are bookended by the soft piano of “Lullabye” as the release closes, and listening again (when my head could take it in), I could hear the overall logical progression at play. Which is not to say this is an easy take–not at all. Between start and finish you’ll wander through “Twilight’s Shadow Play,” where hissing washes pair with gamelan tones; the shadowy, dissonance-tinted minimalism of “Lunar Transformation,” which is, once you settle in, pleasantly deep; and the intertwining flutes and rasping breaths in “Night Birds,” which may test your patience.
Night Stories is not for everyone. Taylor plays it all wonderfully, quite in tune, pun intended, with the intricacies of the xenharmonic model. The music here does what good art should: it challenges us to rethink what we believe we know, or what we have been told, about the way music works. But music is an endlessly malleable thing, bent by mathematics in countless ways and constantly being renewed. That’s what happens on Night Stories, and if you can set aside your notions for 45 minutes, Joel Taylor would like to show you something.
Available from Spectropol.