Can you think of another instrumental section that builds energy and heightens tension quite like the drum roll? From bolstering an energetic marching procession to conjuring a sense of fear in one’s enemy, the technique combines a steady increase in momentum with the power to project and amplify force — the expulsion of an idea, a tactic, an ideology. Ru-ta-ta-ta Ru-ta-ta-ta Ru-ta-ta-ta BAM! There it is, naked and for all to see; a pattern, a sequence, a buildup and a concluding statement — a self-justification that sustains its own trajectory and has its spectators standing at attention. Alas, that is only the beginning; for the important thing is not the drum roll itself, but the actions that come afterward — at the height of stimulation and readiness, the audience does not wish to be deceived.
On his latest masterpiece, the epic and beautiful Music for Private Ensemble, Sean McCann chooses to end his introductory drum roll with a flat note: a soft, subtle flailing of horns that make a distinct and abrasive shift from expectation by easing into an agreeable armchair of quiet. For unlike the rambunctious militancy often associated with such percussive stratagems, this is not a buildup to rally the blood, flex the muscle, or prepare for conflict, but it certainly beckons further investigation. This particular example is expertly deployed as a release that frames the blissful compositions set to follow, a vacuum-controlled flurry of confidence and a cordial welcome into what may prove to be the most sublime album of the year.
McCann has worked between the balustrades of genre and style since his first several releases on Cloud Valley, Open Range, and Digitalis back in 2008. His work as a composer and as an experimental artist has seen the California-based musician’s influence range from the ambient drone flecked textures of Brian Eno and Harold Budd, to the fervent expanse of noise and folk offshoots. On his last solo full-length, 2011’s breathtaking The Capital, McCann pursued his enthusiasm for lo-fi field recordings, which were laced throughout the album’s scuffed orchestral planes. McCann has built his reputation by producing consistently outstanding material across diverging genres and by releasing his output under a number of independent labels. On Private Ensemble, he solidifies his status as an undaunted and accomplished composer, setting new boundaries for expectation in prolificacy while demonstrating a remarkable attention to detail.
Private Ensemble is a careful sidestep, as opposed to a grand departure, from anything McCann has released in the past. Although he has not braved the use of such instrumentation to this extent before, the album reflects that uncompromising gorgeousness so rife across his back catalog, particularly on the more hushed releases, such as Prelusion, which is an exquisite display of how full-bodied ambient drone music should sound. This latest offering incorporates similar stylistic preferences that have been explored on previous efforts, but it does so through a contemporary classical lens, where influences stemming from the Fluxus Group merge with an appreciation for Gavin Bryers’ minimalist cello compositions. Indeed, one can almost make out the unsettling creaks of Titanic decking on “City With All The Angles (For Dick Higgins),” as coarse and strained fragments nestle alongside nervous piano accompaniments.
Mood often tends to fluctuate quite quickly within McCann’s work, even in the longest and most drawn-out of tones (see the spiraling-high pitches that act as simultaneous fear and comfort triggers on “Port” or the crumbling vocals within the fourth movement of The Capital). On Private Ensemble, such shifts are fundamental to the album’s pace. McCann is tactful in deploying calm, tranquil fragments on “Character Change,” with tuned percussion keys, which consistently marshal mixed emotional responses. The effect is one of uncertainty, but also of intrigue and spirit — particularly with the ursine growls and zombie-like cat-calls littered across “City.” Submerged in a setting of supine violins and grumbling cello resonance, it alters one’s perception of beauty by contrasting the traditionally preferential components of gratifying classical production with shared moments of ugliness and upheaval buried into a mix that refuses the temptation of a motionless comfort zone.
Private Ensemble has the word “meticulous” chiseled deep into its core. McCann’s approach is felt throughout the album, but perhaps most persistently thorough the warm violin cadence on “Introduction - Reservations An Exchange of Courtesies pts. 1&2,” which is brought out fantastically through intricate layers as they hover and soar at the beginning of the second movement, just before being greeted by a soothing cello undertone. Whenever these contrasting elements are reigned in close together, they are huddled into an environment of instrumental compromise, whether it’s the glazed horns of “Character Change” or the grizzled pizzicato of “City,” which rubs up alongside assertive piano improvisation. These are undoubtedly subjective descriptors of timbre that arouse a reaction based on past experiences, but they continue to provoke, regardless of the way any single moment might make the listener feel. It’s a wonderfully addictive scenario that’s executed here with irreproachable effect.
So much can be said for the icing on the cake, the ribbon that fastens the wrapping — and although everything that came before it is essentially flawless, it remains for a composition titled “Conclusion: Our Days of Generosity Are Over / Arden” to deliver the final, fateful blow. Comprised of three major sections, it pits McCann’s agile use of violin against an incredible knack for the placement of vocals. Kayla Cohen’s delicate tones are balanced finely between crystalline synths, sweeping strings, and essential moments of silence, which are timed perfectly as the violins fade away and the album comes to a gentle finish — a nurturing purse of the lips in slow motion. It’s one of the most moving and gracious compositions you are likely to hear from a classical solo artist, an impeccable and gorgeous end to a record that never once wavers or shows signs of breaking apart under its own fascinating ambition.
Private Ensemble is the reversion to a palette that favors the acoustic and the dry. It feels its way across any misfired nostalgia and relocates to the ginger presence of a public bandstand; it’s vibrant and alive in a manner that lays waste to the discolored tracts of synthesized emotional strain, no matter how powerful or compelling. In the midst of a renaissance in the application of software, McCann has achieved a personal milestone while setting a benchmark for those who wish to follow in his footsteps, and it all began with that ancient percussive charmer, the ever-impassioned roll of the drum.