David Shea The Book of Scenes

[Sub Rosa; 2005]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: modern composition, electronic, imaginary film scores, sound collage
Others: Edgard Varèse, Bernard Herrmann, John Zorn, Jim O’Rourke

David Shea's The Book of Scenes can probably best be thought of as an imaginary soundtrack to an imaginary film. The Australian (by way of New York) native's 2005 Sub Rosa release is a series of 29 short vignettes, composed primarily for piano and viola, that range between just shy of one minute and three minutes in length. The pieces, with titles like "Sunrise," "Dangerous Ground," "Chase," "Spaces," etc., correspond to specific discrete "scenes." Each individual composition was allegedly scored on a single page, with the resulting pieces having been arranged in such a way that they form a single, coherent story. The tracks are based on treated and partially improvised live performances by Vincent Royer on Cello and Jean-Phillipe Collard-Neven on piano, which were subsequently manipulated electronically by Shea. While the concept of composing a score for an imaginary film or novel has been previously executed on numerous occasions, the corners in this film are just a shade darker, and the rooms just a little more claustrophobic than the usual end result.

As is the nature of this type of recording, Shea's pieces are geared heavily toward the generation of tension and atmosphere. Oftentimes dissonant and unsettling to the ear, Shea's compositions frequently consist of the sort of artificial harmonics and prepared piano that featured prominently in the avant-garde classical compositions that came out of postwar Eastern Europe, particularly in the '50s and early '60s. Brooding and pensive, The Book of Scenes conveys a sense of grim, Cold War-era paranoia, which is periodically broken up by lighter moments featuring Royer's and Collard-Neven's playful free improvisation. "Chase" is a tongue-in-cheek, piano-driven jazz piece that could have been copped from any number of kitschy noir films from the golden age of the silver screen, but mind you, these tracks are much more "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" than they are "Kiss Me Deadly."

Shea demonstrates an ear for meticulous arrangement on The Book of Scenes. While the recording could just as easily have wound up sounding fragmented and far from cohesive, this particular endeavor is assembled in an extraordinarily even-keeled manner. Considering the vast number of tracks to be found here, coupled with the relative homogeneity of the source material, Shea keeps things interesting by spacing the tracks with such sagacity that the listener hasn't the slightest idea what "scene" is coming next.

While Shea's mixing is reasonably subtle, for the most part allowing the instruments to speak for themselves, the record is occasionally marred by the overuse of the sampler. Thunder claps, bird sounds, creaking doors, etc. have the intermittent effect of breaking up the continuity of The Book of Scenes. Despite the occasional transgression, however, The Book of Scenes is an effective mood piece and often beautiful album that demonstrates just how well classical composition and electronic experimentation can be used in conjunction with one another.

1. Air
2. Vertical Shapes
3. OM Chapelle
4. Prepared
5. Cadenza Piano
6. Cadenza Violin
7. Radio Weekend
8. Wood
9. Metal
10. Water/Fire
11. Time
12. Crossings
13. Walkabout
14. Machines
15. I C
16. Spaces
17. Air Jungle
18. Exotique
19. Alternation
20. Memory Lane
21. Sunrise
22. Drumming
23. Spaces
24. Hearbeat
25. Bows
26. Dangerous Ground
27. Chase
28. Harmony
29. Elegy

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