For innovative composer Max de Wardener, music is a kind of time travel, a means of exploring the antique and the arcane and repurposing them for a forward facing now. Always especially close to his late father, who was born in Paris in 1916 and who seems to have imbued in his son an affinity with avant-garde creativity from across the 20th century, de Wardener’s anachronistic artistic predilections are nonetheless synthesised into compositions of undeniably contemporary relevance. Why else would he be so regularly sought out for collaborations by everyone from Gazelle Twin and Mara Carlyle to Emilíana Torrini and Plaid? Add to that, composing commissions from the likes of The Elysian Quartet and The London Symphony Orchestra, and a brace of critically acclaimed solo releases on Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label, and a picture emerges of an artist whose vision is certainly not restricted to music’s rear view mirror.
Classically trained yet renowned for compositions that explore everything from church organs to self-built instruments, like the Harry Partch-inspired cloud chamber percussion bowls, as well as electronics and more orthodox chamber configurations, bassist-turned-multi-instrumentalist de Wardner effectively embodies a Cagean paradigm whereby a serious approach to modern composition can legitimately embrace eccentric experiment and unapologetic play. On Kolmar, his debut album for Village Green, the composer does both as he toys with matters temporal, teasing pure, dream-like sine wave tones from recondite, early-to-mid 20th century instruments like the early electronic keyboard, the ondes Martenot and the Cristal Baschet, whose ethereal tonalities emanate from glazed blades caressed by water-moistened fingers, alongside the eerily pellucid timbres of a similar but even older and still more phantasmagorical implement, the glass harmonica (invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin, no less). These, de Wardener melds, by turns, seamlessly and in resonant juxtaposition with heavily manipulated Buchla Music Easel and Oberheim OB6 analogue synthesisers, grand pipe organs pitched down several octaves, or manipulating the air supply (“so that the sound collapses”) and miscellaneous exotic but precisely applied acoustic percussion, most of it courtesy of prodigious jazz drummer Moses Boyd.
Propelled and defined by such playful means of disrupting default creative gesture, Kolmar is manifestly the work of a musical adventurer eager to map terra incognita, albeit using some resonant contours of the past. Crucially, de Wardener navigates this landscape genially, even amusedly, and always engagingly, delivering immersive textures, asymmetrical rhythms and curiously haunting earworm melodies with a refreshing and unpretentious brio. All of this only reinforces the impression that this music is as much about 20th century modernism’s electric charge and forward thrust as it is the atomised, pick’n’mix aesthetic of the postmodern age. Crucially, de Wardener’s delight in pure tone and ingenuous joy in the sculptural possibility of sound are as palpable as they are persuasive. Time travel has rarely sounded so compelling.
Welcome to the brave new old world.