Music Reviews from the Staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House
September 24, 2022
The Monkey In The Abstract Garden: Over Mountains - Alexandra Grimal & Benjamin Lévy
Catalog #: NUNC.032
Release Date: September 2, 2022
Media: digital download
When we heard that French saxophonist, vocalist and composer Alexandra Grimal was coming out with a "singer/songwriter" double album, we could not help but suppose it was going to be a pop album. Aside from her extensive and electic experimental jazz repertoire, Ms. Grimal has, over the years, appeared as a contributing musician on albums that could generally be described as a kind of popular music. Examples that come to mind include Trans Extended by Macha Gharibian (Jazz Village, 2016), Shelter by Pierre de Trégomain (La Fabrica'Son Label, 2015) and Blue Anemone by Birgitte Lyregaard (Challenge Records, 2010). (The last of these contains a lovely voice and saxophone duet of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.) As it turns out the expectation of a pop record was wholly inaccurate.
Alternatively, had we looked to the other album released in 2022 by Ms. Grimal, refuge (Relative Pitch Records, 2022), for a prediction of what to expect on Over Mountains, we would have again been led astray. That album of solo saxophone pieces can be connected to "singer/songwriter" work only if we accept that Ms. Grimal is an artist that allows her musical esthetic to manifest in many diverse forms.
What we did not know before the release was that this album was to be the third release under the name The Monkey In The Abstract Garden, after the eponomously titled debut release (Ovni, 2020) and vagabondes (2021). Although neither of those two releases remotely correspond to a "singer/song-writer" description, they do, in retrospect, provide a clear guide to the landscape of Over Mountains.
photo: Césaré, Centre national de création musicale - Reims, September 15, 2017.
The Monkey In The Abstract Garden is a duo composed of Ms. Grimal and Benjamin Lévy. On each release Mr. Lévy is credited with "électronique". A signature feature of The Monkey In The Abstract Garden on all three releases is the nature of these electronics, which generate sounds that are not musical in any conventional sense. In fact, when Ms. Grimal sings to the accompaniment of the electronics, it has the sense of an a cappella performance. When listening to these songs, one can't help but wonder what prompted this duo to choose this unlikley combination of voice and instrument, which is, we suspect, a symptom of our favorite kind of music. When a person listens to the music of someone like the British guitarist Derek Bailey for the first time and they hear the arhythmic plinking and plonking of a guitar handled like no other, the same sorts of thoughts are provoked—what drove him to make music of this kind? With this third release by The Monkey In The Abstract Garden, we belatedly see Ms. Grimal and Mr. Lévy establishing an esthetic of their own without close peer or standard for comparison. It seems they made this record because it was essential for them to do so.
Over the course of the twenty-five tracks that span nearly two hours, the music possesses a measured simplicity. There is no saxophone on this record, but Ms. Grimal does, on a few tracks, add a few notes from a mini Rhodes, in the way that someone might add a dash of sugar to temper a bitter recipe. The structure of the songs are straightforward and there is no attempt at deception to the vocals, though there are instances of multi-tracking background vocals. We hear a child-like approach when a line extends beyond the expected meter if one or two words yet remain, the way a child might sing if they were making up a song as they went along.
It is hard to write this review, to do this uncommon music justice. We collect only the random thoughts that are generated in response to listening to the music. When a teacher introduces students to music of the avant garde or the cultural margin in which melody is blended with dissonance, or when a parent introduces children at a young age to such music, there is ordinarily a reservation because this music is unlike the music which they have encountered to date. As the American vocalist and pianist Amina Claudine Myers described, "..You listen to the complete network of sound, you are able to hear it all together...But if you train yourself to accept things, your brain will adjust...You're living within the sound, and it takes you places where you're just dealing with life."[Interview with George Lewis, Bomb Magazine, Vol 97, Fall 2006] We suppose that the The Monkey In The Abstract Garden could be retitled A Young Person's Guide to Training Your Ears and serve as a palatable entrance into the world of non-idiomatic music. Again, it seems such a thing has not existed before.
We would be remiss in ending this review without mention of the lyrics. The bandcamp download includes a pdf file with hand-written lyrics, some in English, some French. These are unabashedly love songs—love of family, love of children, love of the one to whom a life is devoted. If a listener is prompted to think of another album of non-idiomatic music that celebrates love of family, there are not many candidates that spring readily to mind. There are albums that invite a conceptual comparison, Muhal Richard Abram's Familytalk (Black Saint, 1993) or David Murray's Home (Black Saint, 1982) or Children (Black Saint, 1985), but these jazz albums don't bear any musical resemblance to Over Mountains. We can't come up with a similar record and this unique creativity appeals to us. We were supposed to be talking about lyrics, but apparently have little to say. Instead we leave the reader with the lyrics to one song.
Beyond that silence
Beyond that earth
We fell down and reached an inner valley
Where you stopped growing
That wind blows hard
That inner valley stops
eats that forest
Forest wherever you ran
We were looking for that wooden house
Hidden from the woods
We found it and whispered
We grew wild and kids
We never missed home
We never missed life
We never missed home
We never missed life
Until the last moment
Until you reached the heart of things
Until the last moment
Angels were beside us
Never lost that lucky star above your head
Never lost that beauty in your eyes
Our kid grew and felt free to live and create
Beauty around her
Came the other little one
Don't worry, your heart will expand
Never worry again
We'll reach the borders of things
Hidden behind those walls are waiting
For us to come
Don't worry and trust your little star above
We'll reach the end of things and borders
Let's jump into infinite trees
And open eyes widely
Don't worry my love
We'll reach infinite densities
Hidden behind the sky silence
- Alexandra Grimal (voice, mini rhodes, little stones, reeds, pieces of wood, cymbals, keyboard, pearls, Tibetan bowl, wooden pucks, dried flowers, corn balls, wooden frog, egg) musician's website
- Benjamin Lévy (electronics)
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