Tim Story,
Shadowplay
(Hearts of Space, 2001)

Call it the music of niche perfection. It's the sound of a narrow audio subgenre being precisely and spontaneously filled, the realization of a highly individualistic musical goal in an exacting fashion. If one form of artistic criticism favored by the Cult of the Scientific Materialist-Rationalist involves answering three basic questions -- what is the artist attempting, how well do they succeed at it and, finally, is their goal actually worthwhile -- then music of niche perfection rapidly eliminates any doubts about the second question, and makes answering the first simply a matter of paying attention.

For a definitional example of niche perfection, there are few better choices than Shadowplay, the latest release by Ohio musician Tim Story. Shadowplay is a delicate, brooding masterpiece of ambient chamber music, a luminous mosaic of attenuated and ethereal melancholia.

Peaceful, sad and stately, Shadowplay maps precise boundaries and then makes them its own, merging a careful mix of solo piano, oboe, cello and synthesizer with touches of ambient and electronic accompaniment and a delicate management of overall mood. Bell-like synthesizer sounds mark the center of "Flame and Circle," while plaintive strings mourn around it and tired keys travel a worn path spiraling outward. The measured notes of a somber piano recall the uncertain paths of missed chances in "Perhaps." "Intemperate" provides a mysterious atmospheric indulgence, with piano notes rising above the abyss of ambient electronics provided by Dieter Moebius. The nine-minute span of "When All Beyond Was Wild" swings from ambient electronics and low-key keyboards to classically influenced oboe and strings, while tides of synthetic near-voice and the easy memorable tune of "Hum" offer a distant hope of what's next, not quite naive but still overly optimistic. "Melisma" provides the final repetitious coda to a time passed sadly and darkly, adding little that hasn't already been said.

Like the final redundancy of "Melisma," there are aspects of Story's careful constructions that might be labeled drawbacks. The soundscapes are too carefully controlled, one might say, monotonous in their deliberate tones and uniform cadences, nearly merging into a slow tone poem for the self-indulgently morose. Yet these elements are structural parts of the very niche that Story has defined and filled here, and as Story insightfully quotes from Robert Wyatt in his liner notes, some music benefits "from a kind of consistency of atmosphere and mood" and doesn't "really need virtuosity." In the end, these observations are just the nature of the story that Shadowplay tells, and to tell it differently would not better it so much as distort its precise fit into its self-defining niche. One might as well criticize a glacier for being too slow and too heavy. This is the nature of such endeavors, and to make them otherwise would simply make them other things.

In the ranks of the Materialist-Rationalists, the final critical question may ask whether the artist's goal is worth pursuing. Tim Story's masterful achievement of his aims on Shadowplay leaves little reasonable doubt that his are challenges worth seeking out, no matter how an audience may react to them, or even if they refuse to react at all.

[ by Ken Fasimpaur ]
Rambles: 9 February 2002



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