The Polyrhythmic Elegance of Doug Perkins's Simple Songs

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Compared to Doug Perkins's former bandmates, any musician's career would seem "quiet" – since he stepped off the thrill ride that is So Percussion – but all the same, the sudden arrival of a Perkins solo album is a delightful surprise. Less surprising: Perkins has, like So, brought together an impressive body of repertoire for his debut, "Simple Songs."

The "liner notes" – an exceedingly silly minicomic by outstanding critic Matthew Guerrieri (of The First Four Notes fame) – tell us that Nathan Davis wrote the eerie title piece, Simple Songs of Birth and Return for mbira (a plucked African "thumb piano") with Perkins's son in mind. One hopes that this story refers more to the tender first movement than to the second, in which the sound of the instrument is overtaken by wails of unsettling electronic sound.

Tristan Perich's interlude Momentary Expanse, for non-vibrato vibraphone, once again demonstrates Perich's mastery at matching the warm sound of acoustic instruments with ultra-primitive digital bleeps, whereas Beau Sievers's Spatial Network for Percussion incorporates computer technology into the act of composition itself: the piece doesn't exist on paper, but instead as an always-changing "open score" generated in real time for each performance.

The album concludes with a pair of first-rate premieres from the Bang on a Can collective. David Lang's Unchained Melody, which liberates seven notes from the glockenspiel – only to re-shackle each of them to seven unspecified instruments – begins as a study in restraint straight out of early John Cage, but evolves into a statement of more drama and passion than Cage would ever have permitted himself.

But the meat of the disc is XY by Michael Gordon. For five tuned drums, XY demands extreme polyrhythmic precision, but Perkins also brings the piece a profound musicianship, taking what could have been a lesson in arithmetic and instead creating an emotional experience. The drums sing, moan – even howl, as their reverberating overtones gradually come to the fore. Simple Songs may be as concise as its title implies, but it is nevertheless a satisfying listen on every conceivable level. 

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