Album ReviewsReviews

Review: The Cloisters (2012)

artist: The Cloisters
release: The Cloisters
format: CD + CD-R
year of release: 2012
label: Second Lan­guage
dur­a­tion: 41:41, 34:23

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com

By now I think we can safely enshrine Michael Tan­ner in the hall of fame of com­posers who… — well, I still have dif­fi­culties describ­ing this move­ment, if indeed it is one, but I would say that it is char­ac­ter­ised by a mod­ern or for­ward-look­ing com­bin­a­tion of instru­mental (mostly acous­tic) music with elec­tronic record­ing and edit­ing tech­niques, field record­ings, and sampling. At the same time, rather than run­ning with the obvi­ous theme of futur­istic urban music, these com­posers look back­ward and inward, to a partly real, partly ima­gined his­tor­ical land­scape.

In Tan­ner’s case, we are often deal­ing with Bri­tain, its past, its green lands, its songs, and its ghosts. What makes his music so poignant is that he approaches these themes using the above­men­tioned idiom, giv­ing a new and urgent  emo­tional energy to what might oth­er­wise be a bland nos­tal­gia. This was read­ily appar­ent in Tan­ner’s work as Plinth, and col­lab­or­a­tions such as The A. Lords and Task­er­lands, but I found it rarely as strong as on this, his first album under the name The Cloisters. For this debut on Second Lan­guage Music, he is joined by other excel­lent musi­cians Aaron Mar­tin (cello), Áine O’D­wyer (harp), Daniel Mer­rill (viola), and Hanna Tuulikki (har­monium).

The beau­ti­ful tracks on this untitled album have a musical lan­guage that is not easy to decipher. The indi­vidual ele­ments — drawn out organ drones, layered strings, rolling harp and piano melod­ies, ghostly snatches of old choral voices, anim­als, etc. — are per­haps easy enough to place. The total nar­rat­ive, how­ever, is elu­sive and quite novel. It tends partly towards a known sound­scap­ing approach, but always with a strong melodic under­pin­ning. First and fore­most, Tan­ner dis­plays the power to write a story in music, and any trans­la­tion is bound to be vague and impres­sion­istic at best. It becomes all the more clear that music can indeed be a second lan­guage. We have to approach what it says dir­ectly, even though we will always risk miss­ing part of the story it holds.

If there is an ima­gined story to go along with The Cloisters, mine would be that of an exten­ded jour­ney by foot through verd­ant hills and dark moor­lands, with rip­pling brooks (“The Lock Keeper”!) rain clouds, and sud­den streams of light. Per­haps there is a per­son along the way, a home, or maybe only ghosts and ruins. Some addi­tional glimpses of the story can be found on the second disc of this set, avail­able only to label sub­scribers. Little Sum­mer and Little Winter are EPs, the lat­ter of which graced my sol­stice weeks a year ago with its haunt­ing snowy songs. Little Sum­mer is a bit closer to The Cloisters, par­tic­u­larly the first track which remixes parts of “River­christ”, but also the other two tracks, beau­ti­ful as they are in their string-heavy mel­an­choly.

So yes, this is another one of those albums at the heart of that as yet unnamed and eph­em­eral move­ment. Land­scape music from the 21st cen­tury, but deeply informed by what came before. Second Lan­guage sub­scribers will get the love­li­est pack­age — not just the main album in its lovely pack­aging with pho­to­graphs, but also the bonus CD-R. For label out­siders, you can still order sep­ar­ate cop­ies from the label, and you might be able to pro­cure the EPs through other chan­nels. Little Winter is still avail­able as a digital release, and per­haps Little Sum­mer will be as well at some point. Whichever way, do seek all of them out.

Reviewed by O.S.


The Cloisters:

1. River­christ (17:20)
2. The Lock Keeper (2:25)
3. Freo­hyll Noc­turne / Hymn (15:29)
4. A Pela­gic Recital (6:27)

Little Sum­mer / Little Winter:

1. Gwil­lim Grave (5:02)
2. ‘Neath Kerne Bridge (3:58)
3. Pwyll-y-Wrach (5:52)

4. Sor­gen (10:02)
5. Hvislyse (6:03)
6. Pesta Komm (3:26)