Robert Minden (composer, musician), Carla Hallett (arranger, musician)
Otter Bay OB107 (Socan) 2018 available on cdbaby, iTunes, Spotify, & other digital platforms
review by Andrew Timar, October, 16, 2018
The Minden Hallett Duo’s music was once evocatively tagged as “the house band at the restaurant at the end of the universe.” (Gary Norris, Canadian Press) On their blog they describe their new single Flying Horses, a “waltzing reverie” during “summer days of childhood riding astride a wildly painted carousel horses.”
Having formed their duo in 1997, they’ve performed all around North America making lyrical and quirky music, but always crafted with great care and musicality. Part of their mission is to explore the sonic soul of urban junk — often repurposing found instruments as sound sources — interwoven with compelling storytelling with thematic roots sunk deep in the human condition.
The Minden Hallett Duo has released several albums. Their last, What Is Your Name (2015), was arguably their strongest yet. In my April 2015 review, I suggested, “One way to experience What Is Your Name is as a sound film, or a kind of song cycle filtered through a … contemporary alternative folk ethos, though without the guitars, drum sets, pop musical vocabulary and studio production methods permeating the latter.” On Waltz, the last track, blown bottles provide the main melody and accompaniment.
We hear common bottles again at the core of the duo’s latest release Flying Horses. Also in 3/4 time, the track conjures up the old-timey sounds, sights and feel of a 20th century amusement park. The whimsical-sounding single runs an unassuming 2:49, yet the musical forces arrayed in the studio by the two musicians are anything but modest.
In Flying Horses sixty-nine blown glass bottles of many shapes and sizes form a remarkable “bottle choir,” complete with bass, tenor, alto and soprano voices in an uncanny imitation of a steam calliope, though in this case less industrial and more human-scaled. The cider, beer, sherry, vinegar, etc. source of the bottle array is lovingly illustrated on the duo’s blog post. As individually blown by the breath of the duo and meticulously multi-tracked in the studio, the bottle choir wistfully evokes old-timey fairground sounds.
One benefit to using bottles for music: they can be precisely tuned with water. In Flying Horses bottles are tuned to a form of just intonation, minimising the beating between two or more notes, as present on the piano for example. The result is a pure, mellifluous and subliminally satisfying sound.
The carousel effect is enriched by the addition of a Minden specialty, the musical saw: in this a tenor and a baritone saw. Hallett’s voice picks up a vocal countermelody sung through a whirling vacuum cleaner hose (another found instrument), riffing perhaps on the carousel’s other names: the rotating “merry-go-round,” and in Britain, a “roundabout.”
A few phrases later Hallett’s French horn solo offers a three-note rising call in response to the bottle choir’s cyclical, repeating waltz. The music’s close is signaled by the harmonic cadence in the bottles, undercut by the wispy a-tonal glissando of the waterphone suggesting a transition to another, unknown sonic space.
Could it be toward the next track in a new Minden Hallett Duo album? I hope so.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto freelance music journalist, composer and musician. He is the founding editor of MUSICWORKS and has served as reviewer, columnist, blogger and features writer for The WholeNote magazine. Specialising in the music of Indonesia, Timar is a co-founding member of the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan the first group of its kind in Canada. He is a leading soloist on the suling (Indonesian ring flute).