Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
A few Christmases past, I found myself stuck on a car trip with members of my (now ex-) girlfriend’s family. We know how tetchy finding a proper soundtrack for such drives can be, and this ride was no different: one person was into Mumford and Sons, another just bought a plane ticket to see Lady Gaga live in Miami, while the driver had mercifully just ejected Now That’s What I Call Christmas! Vol. 3 from the stereo. Just as snow began to waft about us on the highway, I snuck a copy of German wunderkind producer Hendrik Weber’s second album as Pantha du Prince, 2007’s minimal techno classic This Bliss, onto the stereo. Within minutes the car was enrapt by Pantha’s hovering, bell-like tones, turning a blizzard out on the highway into a winter wonderland. Everyone murmured at once: “What is this?”
It speaks to Weber’s formidable yet composed touch that his music could so mesmerize Top 40 enthusiasts otherwise wholly unfamiliar with minimal German techno, much less electronic music in general. No doubt that’s what led Pantha du Prince to expand his horizons with 2010’s Black Noise (on Rough Trade) and his work since then — be it remixing indie-rock acts like Blonde Redhead and School of the Seven Bells and the more techno-mindful Animal Collective — pushed him further afield. But late last year, an epic 12-minute remix from Pantha du Prince appeared on a Phillip Glass remix album, alongside the likes of Beck, Cornelius and Amon Tobin, suggesting that he might exceed all expectations for where he might venture next. And then there was a brief clamorous clip on YouTube showing Weber and associated cloaked in hooded robes – looking not unlike Sunn O))) – onstage in Norway surrounded by a wide array of bells and metallophones.
That tintinnabulation now reappears in crystalline form on Elements of Light, a 43-minute single piece of music credited to Pantha du Prince & the Bell Laboratory, released this week in the US. Light began in Norway, dating back to the summer of 2010, when Weber heard from a distance the bell carillon being played inside Oslo’s City Hall. For anyone who’s been immersed in Pantha’s previous work — which is underpinned by such dulcet, luminous, almost tactile metallic tones — his compositions for an instrument that holds at least 23 bells of varying sizes and tones isn’t surprising. For the piece that arose out of that summer’s day, Weber collaborated with Norwegian composer Lars Petter Hagen and a bell carillon was shipped from Scandinavia to Germany for the recording. Fittingly, the carillonist who played the bells in Oslo reprised his role on the instrument.
Elements of Light opens with a chimerical strata of such bells, their tones mingling with other resonant instruments: tubular bells, xylophone, cymbals, chimes, and more. The overtones hang like a cloud, blissfully inert. About four minutes in, at the start of “Particle,” a more persistent tock arises and the bells, static just moments before, slowly begin to accelerate and that familiar form and sense of control that defines Pantha’s sound rises to the fore. But while traces of This Bliss remain, there are heady other aspects seeping into Pantha’s music, moving him further from the concerns of modern techno and more towards how to weld that music to larger musical forms.
Elements of Light is nothing less than a sumptuous modern composition, and it’s hard not to think of Javanese gamelan, ecclesiastical chorale music, as well as minimalist music from the latter half of the 20th century. And while his Phillip Glass remix informs this piece, the driving and precise polyrhythms evoke that another American composer, Steve Reich, especially his 1978 masterwork, Music for 18 Musicians (though Drumming comes to mind as well). Thrilling as the rush of the piece is at its mountainous peaks (see the massive 17-minute “Spectral Split”), things slow down and dissipate across the final five minutes of the piece, a drift as slow, still and tranquil as the sight of falling snow.