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Noël Akchoté - Loving Highsmith

Stuart Broomer, Point of Departure


This two-CD set presents French guitarist Noël Akchoté’s music for Eva Vitija’s Loving Highsmith, a cinematic portrait of the American writer Patricia Highsmith, realized in duets with America’s most celebrated contemporary guitarists. CD 1 consists of duets with Mary Halvorson in an Antwerp studio; CD 2 has Akchoté and Bill Frisell recording together long-distance in their trans-Atlantic homes. Instead of stretching out, the duos create series of gem-like pieces, with only three of them exceeding four minutes. CD 1 has 13 pieces of music for the film and 13 additional tracks from the sessions including works by a variety of composers. CD 2 has 11 pieces composed for the film (with only two repeating from the Halvorson session), alternate takes of four of them, and an additional seven pieces from the sessions. Almost inevitably, given the guitar’s emphasis and the presence of Halvorson and Frisell, there’s some wonderfully bright, slightly bent and still bending Americana, including each CD beginning and ending with different versions of the bluegrass hymn, composed by A.J. Buchanan and Rev. Charles Walker Ray, “Death Is Only a Dream,” in solo, duo, and even trio versions.

Akchoté is a masterful composer as well as a guitarist of the first order, and his works here can suggest everything from baroque etudes to country anthems to suspenseful film noir bop. Halvorson makes frequent, but also effective, use of her pitch bending machinery, and given the treble-bright electric tones of both guitarists, it can create a simultaneity of two related worlds, one fixed, one eliding in and out of focus, a kind of dissonance that is as cognitive as it is musical, beyond the merely exotic. The beautiful “Pluvier” has Halvorson bending upper register tones to suggest the wedding of a theremin and a mandolin. The soundtrack also includes Jim Hall’s “Careful,” acknowledging a common source. Among pieces unrelated to the film, Akchoté and Halvorson provide abstract accounts of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “I Remember You,” while other traditions are invoked in the “Slow Ph Blues,” matching Akchoté’s stinging lead with Halvorson’s rock-solid (with occasional quaving), near-acoustic chordal accompaniment.

The Frisell disc begins its soundtrack portion with the trio version of “Death Is Only a Dream.” Combining Halvorson’s pitch bending with Frisell’s near-steel guitar sustain and Akchoté’s warmth, the piece presses its country music sources to self-parody and lachrymose hilarity. The sheer beauty of the Frisell/Akchoté collaboration takes over on “Can I.V.? #1,” as the two create electric guitar sonorities that Bach might relish. Elsewhere the two employ a kind of baroque tracing, Akchoté following, anticipating, then running ahead. “Goldoni” achieves a playfulness that hints at Nino Rota’s work with Federico Fellini, while the non-soundtrack arrangements of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Karitas Habundat” and “Laus Trinitati” summon a modal purity at once timeless and infinitely resonant (and more wit: the two are separated by “Boors,” a burst of high-speed, string band anarchy).