Over the last three decades, Belgian musicians have filled an impressive library of frequently engrossing attempts to decontextualize chamber music from its canonical constraints. Two generations of composers and classically trained instrumentalists have crafted a cornucopia of par excellence ‘Euro-centric’ recordings covering the whole spectrum of syncretic endeavors. Those who forged a groundbreaking neoclassic tenebrism have been more likely to gaine international fame (Univers Zéro, Présent, Julverne). Others opted for a genre-bending fusion of humoristic, jazz and neo-classical elements (X-Legged Sally, Cro-Magnon, DAAU). Occasionally, Belgian neo-classicism drew on systemic vocabulary of American and British predecessors (Soft Verdict, Maximalist).
Since the 1990s, Belgium has literally flooded the market with Kammermusik for rock audience. Still, the productions of Joris Vanvickenroye’s septet Aranis have soared above any expectations. His compositions are tense and dramatic, exuberantly orchestrated for violins, flute, accordion, acoustic guitar, piano and bass. The harmonically and contrapuntally sophisticated fantasias are cogently structured, alternating fast and slow sections and indulging in urgent shifts in dynamic (sometimes even too urgent).
Even though some of themes are catchy, the band eschews the simplicity of the groove; either the keys are modulated or the motif is soon juxtaposed with unexpected nuances, ornaments or transitions that often force the hitherto leading instrument to play the proverbial “second fiddle”.
For a drum-less, acoustic band, Aranis exudes an astonishing sensation of power, without ever compromising its stylistic trajectory. The band has now assumed a prominent rank in the premier league of chamber rock.
The record commences with an intrepid acoustic bass ostinato, platonified by bird-like strings. We are instantly thrown into an atmosphere of breathless drama. Frenetic flute, sharp piano chords and hooked bowing on violins are interlocked in premature variations on the still-evolving theme. All too soon, a trio of juicy bass, lyrical accordion and domesticated piano offers yet another twist in this complex capriccio. After several seconds in the limelight, the accordion cedes to a reprise of the intro on flutes and a more rhythmic piano. The accumulation of ornaments brings a rich potpourri of reminiscences. An energetic staccato, courtesy violins of Linde de Groof and Liesbeth Lambrecht, brings back the memories of Chick Corea’s orchestrations in “the Mad Hatter”. Then Marjolein Cools follows on her wistful accordion – never too far away from Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Nuevo style. The violin duo becomes virtuosic, in turn subsumed by piano and flute interventions and by accordion-dominated refrains. Throughout, the dynamic swells and ebbs, clearly conducted by the bassist. The septet delivers this complex piece with extraordinary panache.
An introspective violin theme develops slowly through systemic blankets woven by surging strings and a repetitive piano figure. Jana Arns’ flute glides romantically in search of violin fermatas. In an aura of classicizing melodiousness, the string legatos conquer the ideal of sonic purity with agile legatos, but the quest is abandoned in the higher register, leaving us with a semi-arid détaché. The second round belongs to the accordion, mimicked by the flute. Joris Vanvickenroye on bass and Axelle Kennis on piano conjugate a fluent rhythmic artery. The intensity of the thematic tail captures the entire ensemble, with the violins dramatizing over and above the holistic tutti.
Acoustic bass and acoustic guitar (Steyn Denys) intone a congenial malagueña. The accordion enriches further the joyful, dancelike tune. Violins repeat the theme, taking it barely one verse further. A very fruity piano and effervescent flute invite the entire band to a transition and loudly reprise the motif. One by one, the instruments fall off the cliff – leaving only the piano to pick up the scattered notes in an offbeat solo, adroitly inlaid by the metronomic bass. The composer defaults to pizzicato and col legno, which, unexpectedly makes the piece rock. In a sweep, the violins and flute scoop up short licks con brio, making other chamber rock competitors blush.
Bass arcato introduces the piano and the flute. This is not the first time that these instruments are scored in an emphatic, yet consonant interplay. Eventually, the violins follow, and their ostentatious portatos suit the herringbone structure of these fantasias. In the second part of the composition, one of the violinists paints a lyrical aquarelle with harmonic easel set up by accordion and a dazzling light cone shed by the arpeggiated piano. The tonal pilgrimage finally reaches its destination, augmented by the second violin and rustling flute.
Walk in One’s Sleep
This time the grainy arcato on bass is malevolent, obsessive and ominous. Repelled, the slices of violin and tangential flute seek their own pathway. Cools’s accordion is less academic and more streetwise here, keen to shake the bellows. After a miniclimax, violins take the lead descrescendo until the dynamic craters. Then like the Pied Piper, the strings will guide the ensemble onto the Olympian summit. The guitar crowns some quieter passages, and the idyllic flute reveals its bipolar tendencies. The texture becomes increasingly polyphonic – the violins return, an uncredited oboe (?) makes an appearance next to a flute vibrato, and a very determined left hand strides on the piano.
A songlike track is introduced by the piano and acoustic guitar, with some brief commentaries from the accordion. As usual, the band wastes no time to densify the structure – a duo or a solo are instantly followed by a richer, more condensed (yet still legible) orchestration. On “Moja”, the plaintive swells evoke an old Art Zoyd motif from its classic period. Tone color patterning operates pairwise – violin and flute to convey drama; guitar and piano to strike an Iberian nuance and accordion substratum laying the veneer of bolero-like accumulation of successive tonal strata. Although the repetitive tendency does owe its pedigree to Steve Reich, the reiterations never last longer than several seconds. The turns are too fast and too potent for Aranis to be labeled “minimalist”.
An acoustic bass figure, in harmonic consonance with the accordion and violins takes longer than in the other compositions to develop a recognizable motif. But what sets this track apart is trumpet, courtesy Bart Maris. His instrument, sometimes muted, has a warm, intimate, almost fluegelhorn-like surface. In more misty, subdued moments, Maris’s playing brings back the memories of Butch Morris’s ‘breathing’, nasal style, which the American composer perfected in small formats. Here, tense, alarmist piano part prepares the ground for another threatening swell in decibels. Eventually, violins quiet things down.
A South-Eastern European dance (a gopak? A furiant?) lashes out pizzicato with vertiginous swings and a Bartokian piano. But Aranis does not dwell on this hugely fertile ground, previously exploited by Iva Bittova, Boris Kovac or Martya Sebestien. This is the septet at its most “rock”, with the heavy beat on piano and bass that is as sweeping and awe-inspiring as Daniel Denis’s legendary thrusts. After a strident interlude from the violins and the flute, a different mood appears. A slow bass walk and, two radical signature changes later, a voluble melody follows on accordion and flute, adorned with putatively Ukrainian stylisms.
The only piece composed by Peter Verdonck commences with a facetious, burping vibrato on bowed bass, guitar and accordion. After some vacillating alternance from the violins and accordion, the piano and guitar duo chisels away an unusual intro and unfolds into a jocular dance, swirling like the unforgettable Cro Magnon’s tunes in the 1990s. Occasionally, the guitar digresses away from the piano and the bass-based ostinato. With verve, bowed bass instigates a polymetric motif full of hilarious, uplifiting twists and jigs.
A piano-based theme, followed by strings and a painfully lonesome accordion. The composition is more stationary, its structure is more fractured and it develops more hesitantly than the other tracks. In the second half, the guitar makes an attempt to resume the theme, followed by the piano.
A leisurely-paced morceau for acoustic guitar and eerily familiar violin phrasings of the Nyman-Mertens-Glass heritage. Although the repetitive component reasserts itself, additional variety is apportioned with violin duels – dirty shreds versus pristine loftiness. Along with piano, the strings build (unintentional?) Nymanian quotes. Still, the track never aspires to minimalist unity and towards the end assumes the rocking potency from bass and piano, capturing the effect achieved by Far Corner not so long ago.
Aranis: “Aranis” (2005)
Aranis: “Aranis II” (2006)