A Cello Set My Head On Fire (Reviewing Phil Norman)

I know when I’m out of my depth.

Phil Norman’s “The Moon Has Strange Ears” is one of the most challenging albums I’ve ever reviewed. Straight up. It’s taken me many, many listens to make sense of not only what I’m hearing but also my reaction to it. And for that, I thank the man who helped me ring in the New Year with an absolutely gorgeous, fascinating and complex recording. It’s far heftier than I might have supposed in my naiveté when I first pressed play. Cheers, Phil.

Among  the music strewn across my virtual desk, I can count the albums of original cello compositions on one finger. Having a crack at it was intimidating. It required putting aside three chords and the truth and actually learning.

cover art

cover art

An Ohio native, Phil Norman is a 2008 Buff grad (cello performance) who wrote the bulk of these compositions over several years and recorded them in two Boulder locations: UI Sound Studios and the Pine Street Church. He is accompanied at intervals by guitar (Paul Russell), trumpet (Ryan Spencer), violins (Allegra Michael, Rachel Sliker), viola (Alexander Vittal) and cello (Psyche Dunkhase).

Phil has been a cellist since fifth grade. He switched from violin so he could sit nearer his friend in orchestra. And that’s that, although he also plays guitar and bass.

I feel the best course in reviewing this record is to tell you what I hear and then tell you how Phil describes it. I will not have the benefit of using words associated with classical music or string compositions because I don’t know any.

I hear jazz. I hear the Pink Panther sneaking up behind me. I hear a movie score. I hear intuition and joy. Opening track “Teal” is a knockout punch. Just Phil and his cello conjuring so many thunderclouds. There’s a freneticism about it that makes the heart race, but in fact there’s nothing uncontrolled about it. Just the opposite. We move swiftly to a duet with guitar in “Paintbrush.” The instruments are delightfully complementary. In the midsection, Phil pulls the sound of a slapped bass from his cello that I’ve put on near permanent repeat. This song sounds like something Craig Armstrong would write after going camping. Five Chromatic Sketches follow, and it’s here where we get into movie territory. With trumpet blazing in Sketch 1, I know I should fix my thoughts on scales, but I’m too busy imagining myself as James Bond wearing Maxwell Smart’s shoes and talking like Inspector Clouseau. The title track, “The Moon Has Strange Ears,” again finds Norman alone, his instrument soliciting echoes from the reverb-drenched church hall. There’s more that I want to express about this recording, but I need Phil’s help to better explain it. I did of course ask him if there’s a unifying theme binding the compositions on this album.

Much of it represents where I’ve been and where I want to go with my music. The feel suggests a bit of the onset of dusk and night (and any way that can be applied metaphorically to lots of things) across the whole album. This is sort of by design with the final track being a Nocturne and the title.

You read my tripe about the Five Chromatic Sketches, right? Now here’s Phil’s take.

The chromatic sketches refer to the chromatic scale but also to color. I wanted to create some short pieces that each embodied a certain mood or color. The challenge was to evoke that color with very little time and only the two voices of trumpet and cello. It also refers to how I was thinking of the harmony while I was writing these. I didn’t want them to be completely atonal, but they don’t use functional harmony either. The way the two voices move against each other and the individual melodies were more important to me than the intervals they and harmony they created. So creating two separate and complimentary melodies that may or may not be consonant or dissonant but often having a tonal center. I’ve come to think of this as chromatic harmony (I don’t know if this is already a term or not). It treats intervals, chords, and the 12 tones of the western chromatic scale equally, much in the same way serial composers do; the difference being that the interaction of the voices, maybe based on a tonal center, becomes the more important factor. These pieces will be released with some short looping videos for each Sketch.
Holy crap, indeed. His take on the final track, “Nocturne,” might just fry your brain.

It was recorded over about a month on several different pianos. I had around 30 different people play a rhythmic pattern on a note that I gave them in whatever repeating pattern they chose and put them together into the chords you hear. The idea was to create a piece in which notation would not only be impossible and meaningless, but totally unnecessary, mimicking the organic nature of sounds we hear around us. All the melodies are happening entirely by chance, but there is also form and composition to this piece, which I achieved by writing the chords and controlling the transitions between them. This idea was conceived while listening to crickets in the evening, and how the sounds they make relate to each other without intentionally relating.

Ummm … I was just gonna say that it sounds like being hypnotized.

Being so woefully inadequate in my understanding of grown-up music, it falls to me to pick said musician’s brain for the benefit of myself and my readers. So I asked Phil how the heck he writes this stuff. In a flourish? Over time?

This depends on the song. The solo cello pieces for example are written mostly when I’m practicing and improvising, sometimes happening all at once, and sometimes revisiting a riff I like again and again across several sessions. Pieces like “Salberg Park” and “Five Chromatic Sketches” were written over a longer period of time, usually at a piano, though the third sketch was written on guitar.
Finally, at dusk, when the moon was rising over this brilliant gathering of songs, Phil said something that this humble writer could really and truly understand.
Playing music with people is one of the greatest things ever.
Phil Norman’s audience tends to skew toward the educated music listener – jazz types and what not. But no matter who you are, you’re invited to his CD release show on 24th Jan at Deerpile (above City O’ City) in Denver. He’ll be playing most of the album and will be joined by piano, bass, and trumpet to perform a new piece. Check out a live performance below.