Michael Tanner – Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 17.41.30

Michael Tanner – Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer

A son of Dorset, the now Sussex-dwelling Michael Tanner has for over a decade been releasing a steady stream of high quality, emotionally engaging and subtly structured ambient-orientated music. An acoustically-wise soundscape artist, best known under his Plinth guise, he has also periodically shapeshifted into The Cloisters and is a member of the elusive but Wire magazine beloved United Bible Studies. In 2001 he appeared alongside Directorsound’s Nick Palmer, as one-third of The A Lords, whose critically acclaimed eponymous album engendered the re-discovery of late-’60s cult singer-songwriter Mark Fry.

My own first exposure to Tanner’s work was in 2006, when I fortunately obtained an early version of what is still arguably his most completely realised opus, Music For Smalls Lighthouse (as Plinth). Recently re-released on vinyl by Clay Pipe Music, it’s a piece of considerable scope and in its subject matter and execution could well be regarded as the progenitor of the entire psycho-geographical ambient oeuvre, with a freshening splash of neo-gothic folkiness on the side.

What has always been the most intriguing element throughout the wandering Tanner’s varied musical projects is the prevailing sense of composed gentleness. It’s a form of music that is reflective to the point of introversion, yet what comes across both clearly and repeatedly (and with a paradoxical energy) is the sense of an individual telling a series of musical tales. Over time, Tanner has appeared to comfortably oscillate between major and minor scale compositions, rather as an actor alternating between large and small roles. It’s an excellent strategy, allowing him the space to change musical gear and avoid the ubiquitous ambient-trap of ‘forever making the same piece, just making it more so’. Yet whatever the scale of the mood aimed for, what unites all of Tanner’s works is a considered and elegant mode of sonic execution.

Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer lives somewhere in the middle of this framework. What is evident, here, is that Tanner is in the process of freeing (sic) himself from environment-based sources of both sound and inspiration into a more abstract, more intellectualised realm. The twenty-one minute long opening section “Psaltery” opens with a series of simple, overlapped, dulcet dulcimer meandering semi-tunes evolving, upon the entry of Alison Cotton’s  delicate viola tracery, into a more complex series of arpeggiation texturally reminiscent of the early Eno/Fripp album No Pussyfooting, had they decided to calm it right down and do the whole ticket unplugged. The latter more drift-orientated part of the piece is light and airy but, like all good drift, has an implied rhythmic sway lurking beneath its amorphous surface and includes a wonderfully constructed, merge-into-shadow, long fade. The two companion pieces, “Dulcimer 1” and “Dulcimer 2” present a more treated and high stratosphere formation of densely stacked legato loops, the former joyously classical and the latter darker with a murky undergrowth of early music tonalities.

Always a composer of considerable ability and noticeable balance, on Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer Michael Tanner has fashioned a captivating exploration of musical form, tone and volume. Turn it up or turn it down, you won’t be disappointed.

Kit Records