Truth is, I’d already spent lots of time over the last few weeks pleasurably immersed in Heights in Depths, a new album from the Hague-based American composer and instrumentalist Leo Svirsky, issued Nov. 11 on vinyl LP by Catch Wave Ltd., a Brooklyn label launched recently by bassist-composer Britton Powell.
Svirsky’s impressively tricky to get a handle on. His website reveals that he studied with Antoine Beuger, a principal mover in the Wandelweiser collective. Some of the works and performances on Svirsky’s C.V. could lead you to assume a fundamental kinship. There’s supporting evidence on YouTube, too.
But Svirsky’s recordings have told a different story. Songs in the Key of Survival, his striking and assured 2012 solo debut on the Ehse label, deftly balances politically conscious vocal ballads with rigorous, agitated improvised piano études. An eponymous 2015 cassette of improvisations recorded with violinist Katt Hernandez, released by the Denver label Slow-Fidelity, is scruffy, acidic, and disquieting, with intimations of violence never far from the surface. (No great surprise to spot Jenny Hval and Deathspell Omega in Svirsky’s Bandcamp collection.)
Heights in Depths is something else altogether: two side-long compositions for solo accordion, each a tightly focused study in minimalism in the original La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and Eliane Radigue sense of that term. The title track in particular concentrates on a slow ascension of sustained high tones; an alternation of lean and thick intervals and clusters produces a dizzying span of pealing overtones and disorienting beats.
The flip side, “Depths in Heights,” is simpler, gentler – more mezzo forte, mezza voce, middle register. Lacking the previous work’s confrontational intensity, it provides a measure of contemplative calm, without lapsing into patronizing docility. (The relationship between the compositions, titles derived from the 17th-century English religious writer Joseph Salmon, and an LP insert that quotes passages of Salmon taken from Norman Cohn’s 1957 book The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages is left to the individual imagination.)
Like I said, I’d been enchanted for a few weeks already – and if you’re intrigued by the clip of “Depths in Heights” embedded here, you can stream the entire album courtesy of our friends at Ad Hoc. But with the passing late last week of Pauline Oliveros, among the all-time foremost examples of a protean, forward-thinking innovator whose chief ax was the accordion, somehow it feels completely natural to have turned to Svirsky for company again and again, and again.