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Alex Cline's Flower Garland Orchestra: Alex Cline's Flower Garland Orchestra: Oceans of Vows

John Kelman By

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Despite being a key participant in the "Left Coast" scene of more avant-leaning music from the American west coast—in particular, part of the Cryptogramophone imprint that, while less active than in its "glory days" during the first years of the new millennium—Alex Cline releases so infrequently as a leader that any new music from the percussionist/composer is worthy of attention. That he has flown so far under the radar, in recent years, that his last Cryptogramophone release, 2013's For People In Sorrow, was largely (and unfairly) overlooked. Thankfully, that's not the case with Oceans of Vows, a sumptuous two-disc set that documents a two-hour suite of music—two parts, each consisting of five movements—inspired by and revolving around several Buddhist texts and poetry, the result of a grant awarded to Cline in early 2015, culminating in its premiere at California State University, Northridge's Plaza del Sol Concert Hall in October the same year, followed by two days of recording in the studio.

When it's a major work such as this—and with a fourteen-piece ensemble that, amongst others, includes guitarists GE Stinson and the percussionist's twin brother, Nels Cline, alongside violinists Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Cryptogramophone label head Jeff Gauthier, percussionist Brad Dutz, keyboardist Wayne Peet, flautist Will Salmon and bassist/keyboardist Scott Walton—it's too easy to fall back on descriptors like "sweeping," "bold," "ambitious" and "epic." While, in some ways, every one of these words can be used to describe parts of Oceans of Vows, in many ways such grand words deflect from others that are far more appropriate. Given Buddhism's selfless ambitions—and, as Cline's own liners describe, the percussionist's "musical settings of small excerpts from the voluminous Buddhist scripture known as the Avatamsaka Sutra or Flower Garland Discourse, combined with four-plus thematically related poems by my spiritual teacher, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh"—it seems almost contrary to the faith's fundamental tenets to use such potentially broad, self-indulgent terms.

That's not to suggest that there aren't plenty of passionate, hard-hitting moments throughout a recording whose earlier precedents include, in particular, Cline's back-to-back Cryptogramophone releases Sparks Fly Upward (1999) and The Constant Flame (2000), both of which had their genesis in The Lamp and the Star (ECM, 1989) and Montsalvat (Ninewinds, 1995). Unlike more recent, improv-heavy Cline-led dates including Cloud Plate (Cryptogramophone, 2005) and Continuation (Cryptogramophone, 2009), Oceans of Vows returns to his earlier albums' seamless combination of form and freedom, despite the line between the two being often blurred...or, in some cases, dissolved completely.

But with a sizeable number of Oceans of Vows ten pieces commencing with the sound of the large temple bell Cline often uses to begin either performances or compositions, this album is, following the breakthrough of his Roscoe Mitchell homage For People in Sorrow, an even more substantial move forward and outward. Cline continues to mine a nexus where the multiplicity of diverse musical streams underscoring his evolving work over the years meets the Zen Buddhism studies and devotions that have been of equal, if not more, significance in defining his life's path. Ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village lineage, Cline's commitment to Zen practice cannot help but inform his musical endeavours; but while that commitment is evident in his earlier work, it has never been more recognizable, more a driving force, more of a fundamental to the music than both his ten compositions on Oceans of Vows are...as are the exceptional performances he has drawn from his musical colleagues.

The music often unfolds, gradually, patiently, but nowhere more, perhaps, than the episodic album opener "The Tree of Enlightenment," where Cline's temple bell, struck multiple times over the course of sixty seconds, is followed by a slow buildup of malleted gongs, building from a whisper to a virtual roar over the course of almost 90 seconds, before fading to black as a series of volume pedal-swelled guitar chords introduce an elegiac passage joined by vocalist Areni Agbabian's soft introductory words, "Thus have I heard." A brief section, freely improvised—where space and decay are as important as notes and pulses—leads to a long pedal tone that slowly assumes harmonic movement in an orchestral fashion, as Agbabian continues to bring words drawn from The Wonderful Adornments of the Leaders of the World to musical life: tranquil yet dramatic; calming yet compelling, even as her melodies begin to soar over the confluence of all that came before, with hints of middle eastern tonalities combined with more oriental concerns as the music fades away, leaving a percussion section that slowly assumes a steady pulse, with Agbabian returning, this time accompanied by Yuko C. Honda's otherworldly samples.

The addition of Chi Li to the ensemble is key to Oceans of Vows' marriage of the oriental and occidental, with traditional Chinese bowed instruments (the erhu and zhonghu ) augmented with the plucked and/or struck zither-like zheng and qin to add cultural verisimilitude and a unique blend with Gauthier's electric and Atwood-Ferguson's electric 5-string violin. Further combined with cellist Maggie Parkins, Cline has an even broader musical palette upon which to draw than even the sheer size of his Flower Garland Orchestra might suggest. Bells and other tuned percussion combine with Li's work to turn "A Flash of Lightning" into a more oriental-leaning piece, with Agbabian's delivery of text from The Practice of Universal Good representing some of the first disc's most deeply melodic and profoundly beautiful music, as it leads to words, chanted by the entire ensemble, that articulate some of the paradoxes that make the study of Zen Buddhism truly a lifelong commitment:

"This is because that is; that is because this is.
This is not because that is not; that is not because this is not."

In addition to Agbabian's singing, pre-recorded readings are peppered throughout the suite. Offered to Thich Nhat Hanh by Cline in honor of his 89th birthday (or, as Hanh prefers, "continuation day"), the proceeds from the live performance were also donated to Cline's Zen master to help defray medical costs associated with treatment for a severe stroke suffered in the fall of 2014; how endemic of Zen Buddhism that Cline writes, "I have to confess that when I first conceived of this work, I did not envision it as a piece of music designed to honor my teacher. I actually always imagined that any such piece I might offer him would be something more humble, small, simple, quiet and intimate." Indeed, portions of Oceans of Vows are far from intimate—in particular the riff-driven, rock-informed opening of "The Incalcuable," with Peet's progressive rock-inspired organ fills between the vocal lines; still, even that relatively short, relentless piece concluded with a coda of greater gentility and calming quietude.

With a cast this outstanding, it will come as no surprise that there are, embedded within Oceans of Vows more detailed construction and freer predilections, plenty of impressive solos to be found. Brother Nels contributes characteristically unpredictable solos (with four identified, the most solos of any participant): his feature on the first disc's closer, "We Will Be Back Again," driven by his brother's firm but open-ended backbeat, moves from lyric fusion to more abstract, electronics/preparation-driven climaxes, while his solo during the album's penultimate track "Interbeing" epitomizes his brother's lifelong pursuits with a soft, pliant approach to gentle melodism that beautifully sets up a combination of Salmon's flute and Parkins' cello. Both are supported by tuned bells to create a dreamy, pacifying cloud of sound that bolster Agbabian's soft delivery of the final, soothing words from Hanh's poem:

"Therefore you know
that as long as you continue to breathe,
I continue to be in you."

Elsewhere, Stinson contributes idiosyncratic slide guitar to the gentle atmosphere of "The Voice of the Buddha," contrasting with Salmon's warm flute and Agbabian's appealing lower register singing, while Li's zheng contrasts and conjoins with Guthier's electric violin on "The Old Mendicant" to create a sound imbued of antiquity while, at the same time, possessed of an unequivocally modernist bent. Elsewhere, on the spare, curiously Miles Davis-tinged "We Will Be Back Again," Atwood-Ferguson is given the chance to solo more expansively, with wah wah'd guitar and muscular drums at the foundation of a piece that, nevertheless, moves between tranquility and unassailable groove as Agbabian's vocal interlude leads to another lengthy solo from guitarist Cline, as he once again demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of his instrument and the various effects through which he feeds it, as he builds a solo as imbued with moments of microtonality as it is alien sonics and fluid virtuosity.

Packaged in a simple but beautifully designed clamshell box, Oceans of Vows' two CDs are joined by two booklets: one, featuring the texts recited or sung throughout the suite; the another, including detailed production information and lengthy, informative liners from Alex Cline and friend, musical collaborator (albeit not in this group) and Dharma brother Peter Kuhn, along with 17 pages of beautiful color shots from the live performance and a group shot from the studio sessions.

Both a career milestone and current culmination, Oceans of Vows could also have been called Sangam, the Indian word for confluence that has graced ECM recordings by both Charles Lloyd and Trygve Seim, for it is, indeed, representative of the place where the many things occupying Cline's life—musical and otherwise—have come together. If Cline's deeper spirituality was hinted at strongly on previous albums, with Oceans of Vows the percussionist has found a successful marriage that few musicians achieve; and with a group as empathic, virtuosic yet selflessly committed to realizing the demands of this music as is Cline's Flower Garland Orchestra (and the good fortune of a grant to fund it), the end result is a recording as beautiful to hold as it is to hear, and as inspirational to hear as it is to read both the Buddhist texts that inspired the music and Cline and Kuhn's notes.

Engineer Rich Breen's characteristic attention to sonic detail brings every layer (and there are, at times, a great many), every musical contribution, to vivid life, just as the Flower Garland Orchestra lifts Cline's music off the written page and into an existence that even the percussionist himself might not have anticipated when he first began the journey to realizing this project.

Oceans of Vows may not overtly aspire to greatness—that would be contrary to the humility that is one of the ten sacred qualities of Avalokite Bodhisattva (Buddha of Compassion)—but it is great, nevertheless...certainly Cline's most impressive recording to date. And if it would be, somehow, wrong to use terms like "sweeping," "bold," "ambitious" or "epic" to describe it, the expansive, musically diverse and cinematically inspiring Oceans of Vows nevertheless remains Cline's farthest-reaching, musically and philosophically inclusive—and just plain impressive—recording of his career.

Track Listing: CD1: The Tree of Enlightenment; A Flash of Lightning; The Voice of the Buddha; The Old Mendicant; We Will Be Back Again. CD2: The Flower Bank World; The Incalculable; Mahamaya; Interbeing; The Ten Great Aspirations of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.

Personnel: Areni Agbabian: voice, bells (CD1#2); Chi Li: erhu, zhonghu, zheng, qin, featured zhonghu (CD1#2), voice (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured qin (CD1#3), featured zheng (CD1#4, CD2#3), featured erhu (CD2#5); Jeff Gauthier: electric violin, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured electric violin (CD1#4); Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: electric 5-string violin, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured electric 5-string violin (CD1#5, CD2#5); Maggie Parkins: cello, featured cello (CD2#1, CD2#4); Will Salmon: flute, recorders, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured flute (CD1#3, CD2#4); Nels Cline: electric guitars, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured electric guitar (CD1#5, CD2#1, CD2#4-5); GE Stinson: electric guitars, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured slide guitar (CD1#3), featured electric guitar (CD2#1); Wayne Peet: electric piano, organ, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured organ (CD2#2); Yuka C. Honda: electric keyboards, samples, featured samples (CD1#2), voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2); Scott Walton: bass, keyboard, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured bass (CD2#3); Brad Dutz: vibraphone, hand drums, crotales, gongs, percussion, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured percussion (CD1#5); Alex Cline: drums, gongs, percussion, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2), featured percussion (CD2#5); Vicki Ray: conductor, voices (CD1#2), bells (CD1#2); Thich Nhat Hanh: pre-recorded voice; Brother Phap Khe: pre-recorded voice; Duc Nguyen: pre-recorded voice; Brother Phap Hai: pre-recorded voice; Sister Dang Nghiem: pre-recorded voice.

Title: Alex Cline's Flower Garland Orchestra: Oceans of Vows | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Cryptogramophone


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