As I listen to the pleasant ping of tuned tom-toms on this album, I wonder about the usual ubiquity of the snare drum, and the many presumptions of the standard drum set, which not only assumes a limited cast of percussive characters, but also leads so many percussionists and composers to keep telling the same sonic story. And, hey, sometimes it’s called a “trap set,” isn’t it!? Snares and traps — how did hunting terms get mixed into our vocabulary for drums? But that’s the paradox of rhythm: we’re snared by repetition, trapped by the tempo, locked into the groove, and so, set free.
Angel Deradoorian, recording as just Deradoorian, is on a good, old-fashioned quest for freedom and enlightenment on her first album, The Expanding Flower Planet. It’s explicit: “In your inner gaze/you will find the sage/and build a circle of/creation” (from “Your Creator”). And “How can we grow?/We must know much more/than what we seem to know” (“Expanding Flower Planet”). And “How do we reach through?/grow grow grow grow grow grow…” (“Grow”). She’s not instructing — thankfully, this is not a seminar — she’s showing by example. You can hear she’s clearing away the clutter of presumptions.
I’m a big fan of mid-20th century jazz composer and player Jimmy Giuffre. I love his music and his method. He gave his options fair consideration and chose what worked for him. Drums on this piece? Well, maybe. Let’s have drums in this section, but not in this other, and use fingertips instead of drum sticks. Every facet of his music seems to have been questioned and weighed. Some aspects are accepted and others rejected. The result wasn’t often radical music (though sometimes it was), but it’s fresh and refreshing because it’s not complacent, not under the sway of the conventions of tradition or the avant garde. A good example of his process is Giuffre’s trio in which he played clarinet or sax with guitarist Jim Hall and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer: the language of the blues is accepted, but conventional instrumental roles are not. Lately, in my own music, I’ve been particularly interested in reevaluating form and proportion. Deradoorian is thinking about that too.
Deradoorian is a young composer (born 1986) who is sloughing off her influences and defining her own priorities on her new album. She’s played (bass and vocals) with Dirty Projectors and with Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, and on her first EP, Mind Raft (2009), you can hear some of the unconventional conventions of Dave Longstreth and Animal Collective. A bit of Björk and Beyoncé there, too. But Deradoorian seems to have cleared away the murkiness of that quite good EP, and there are bright lights on in The Expanding Flower Planet. Elements are selected, chosen; function considered and reconsidered. The questing and questioning described in the lyrics are enacted in the music.
A while back (I suppose it was years before Angel Deradoorian was born), in a New York record store, I found a bunch of LPs from Thailand. They were designed for dancing, with mid-’60s combos performing Thai tunes to mostly Latin rhythms. Those albums, along with some of the Bollywood music that was reaching me then, provided my first exposure to the wonder of reverse exoticism — Western music refracted through a non-Western sensibility. Deradoorian’s album is reminding me of those Thai records. (I still have them — the covers are great.) Maybe that’s because of the intriguingly askew way the music’s put together. Or maybe it’s because of Deradoorian’s only really notable recurring sonic reference: ’60s electric organs. They keep showing up, sometimes evoking early Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and sometimes the organs in those wobbly Thai combos. That sound seems to me the only element that’s pointing backwards at anything. Otherwise, we’re going forward, fast.
The Expanding Flower Planet opens with “A Beautiful Woman,” a song with a celebratory feel and a nicely considered (snareless!) drum part that’s sometimes busy, and at other times just simple ride cymbal and kick. Deradoorian sings, “A beautiful woman/Beautiful woman/You’re the one I wanna be,” and it is exhilarating. Unlike a lot of the “beautiful” women in pop music history, the beauty of this one is clearly not just skin-deep, as the lyrics preceding one of the choruses are, “…forces still arrested me/Threw me down/Made me think I’ll never be a beautiful woman….” I think this a feminist album, but not because it explicates that intent to us. Like the album’s experimentalism, its feminism is there because it’s being enacted. (By the way, further evidence that Deradoorian’s music isn’t trying to be didactic: I can only quote these lyrics because I requested a copy of them. As sung and mixed, only some of the words stand out; others are swallowed up. Her diction is natural and unaffected; it just seems that perfect clarity of the lyrics wasn’t a priority.)
The album is full of female voices, most of them Deradoorian herself. Guest vocalists Niki Randa and sister Arlene Deradoorian are credited, but it sounds like a chorus of Angel Deradoorians. She’s usually at least doubling herself. I think there’s hardly a moment when Angel sings a line alone; the only single-voice line I heard is in “The Eye,” and that one is electronically distorted. Deradoorian is a terrific singer who could handle the melismatic, rhythmic and harmonic complexities of Dirty Projectors, and she brings wonderful shapes and tone to her melodies and harmonies here. But one of my two (minor) quibbles with the album is that I’d like to sometimes hear her voice exposed, alone, so I could get to know it better, and as contrast to all the choral parts. A sense of person, rather than persons.
My other quibble is related, and it’s also a reason I’m looking forward to hearing Deradoorian during her tour in September and October: the album is great, but I sense that these songs will really come to life when they’re performed in concert. First of all, they tend to be chant-like, and that’s bound to provoke energy in performers and audience. Also, the care with which the album is made (and which I so enjoy and admire) will get helpfully jostled around a bit when instruments are in human hands, and multiple vocalists are singing.
The song “DarkLord” starts with electric guitar (something used sparingly on this album), which then has a Shaggs-like relation to the drum part. Vocals syncopate with this uneven ground and sing, “It’s not possible, not possible/If it’s possible, tell me how/It’s not possible, not possible/If it’s possible, tell me now.” Deradoorian is insisting on new possibilities, and she’s making them happen.