In an ongoing effort to spend as little time as possible with my own thoughts, I often have something on: A new album, a podcast, an audiobook, the same recording of “Chess” that I’ve been playing into warped oblivion for the last two decades… They all more or less see the same concentrated output of my auditory efforts. It’s hard for me to do “background” music, because I inevitably focus on the sound, like a cat stalking a laser pointer.

On name value alone, “Inhale/Exhale”—a collaboration between composer/guitarist/Pulitzer laureate Raven Chacon, percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, and bassist Carlos Santistevan—may suggest a neural reconfiguration for someone with what the medical profession terms “no chill.” And there is plenty of John Cageian “no why, just here” in this pairing of the two title tracks, each clocking in at roughly 20 minutes and unraveling in improvisational tangles of sound. Ideas spark, come into focus, extend, and fold back into the ether; the only thing constant is the listener. 

And the noise. Chacon, Nakatani, and Santistevan form a three-man cavalcade with their plurality of musical backgrounds—metal, experimental music, and avant country influences all percolate in both “Inhale” and “Exhale.” But these threads are also subsurface and hard to pin down. On my first listen of “Inhale,” I felt like I was warming myself against embers of Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Listening to the track a second and even third time, I struggled to find those same footholds. Was there really a whiff of Janáček’s ghost worlds, or had I just listened to this too soon after hearing The Knights play the same composer’s “Kreutzer Sonata”? Is that the bicycle horn ringtone in “Exhale,” and how am I just noticing it now on the umpteenth listen?

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Improvisation is inherently ephemeral. The best of it, when preserved on recording, has a mercurial and malleable quality. Nakatani’s percussion pulsates, more heartbeat than drumbeat, in agitated and anxious spasms. About a quarter of the way into “Exhale,” Santistevan picks up this line, sawing through the same descending chromatic scales over and over, running them ragged. Chacon’s electric guitar sits on top of this like a fine layer of static and electricity, as if we’re picking up a late-night AM radio station for just a few miles along a stretch of highway. One slight curve of the road, and it’s gone.

Even the recording itself is a testament to the temporary and transitory: Santistevan arranged for the trio to record in Santa Fe’s San Miguel Chapel as a contribution to the 2020 High Zero festival in Baltimore. Being that it was 2020, the performances were being recorded remotely for streaming that fall. The recordings were finalized and then the hard drive they were sitting on was stolen from Santistevan’s car. “Inhale/Exhale” is therefore the second iteration; the apocryphal quote misattributed to Anaïs Nin or James Baldwin or Anton Chekhov with no actual record of who originally said it. It’s already lost to time.  

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I’m not sure if I keep coming back to “Inhale/Exhale” or if it keeps coming back to me. As much as I’ve done plenty of the former, playing and re-playing the tracks, even when I’m not listening to it I’ve found its overall aural texture hard to shake, much like Pigpen is constantly clouded by his aura of dirt. It’s also the sort of album that offsets by design whatever you listen to in its wake. 

Take, for instance, “ppp.” The name is a misnomer: Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica’s latest venture isn’t dedicated to barely-audible, soft shouldered pianississimos. The works of Pēteris Plakidis, Kristaps Pētersons, and Georgs Pelēcis (the three last names being the source of the title here) are more angular and square-jawed. Many of the works feel like slowed-down meditations on one idea presented on “Inhale/Exhale.” Plakidis’s “Little Concerto” for two violins (featuring Kremer alongside the luminous Madara Pētersone) puts the buzzing of Chacon and Santistevan’s string instruments under a microscope, isolating their sonic cells and rendering them into large-scale diagrams.

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There are moments of quietude, but never an absence of noise. Pētersons’s “Music for a Large Ensemble” (written for and performed by a Latvian subset of the Kremerata Baltica, the Kremerata Lettonica) begins in slow, almost ritualistic repetition, subverting the idea of largeness. However, what the composer describes as his initial “dead ends of sounds” are still relentless in their attempts to keep moving. This resolves in the final, and most substantial, movement, which begins in an orchestrating vein similar to Ravel’s “Boléro” before going completely off the map, roving in its pursuit of something unnamable—perhaps even nonexistent. ¶

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