MILO FINE – The Only Dignity Is Oblivion

Shih Shih Wu Ai

Don’t you love Milo Fine’s titles and their cynical affinity with the genuine crudeness of a reality deprived of pink nuances?

OK, option #2. Think of the active contribution of a performance’s space to the very act. This is the raison d’être of The Only Dignity Is Oblivion, a triple CD recorded in separate nights at at Fine’s home-based Studio Toile d’Angles in Minneapolis.

The priority, in this circumstance, was the desire of documenting the unaccompanied sonority of his instruments (drums and percussion, clarinets and piano) in a favorable environment exalting their qualities. There was no quest for a somewhat decisive “historical” pronouncement. Just the total focus on instantaneous conception through the transitory constituents of a personal aesthetic whose divergence is natural.

The drums belong in Fine’s DNA; his father Elliot was a renowned professional drummer/teacher and occasional recording comrade. Still, this won’t explain – at least conventionally – the organic dismemberment of “human” meters informing any percussion-related movement heard in the first disc. At the same time, there’s a brilliant management of the overall flux of the events, meaning that impressive technical skills do not threaten a listener’s ability to decode – or attempt to – the messages imparted.

The variety of colors is jaw-dropping. We can detect the smallest vibration in the skins; acknowledge complex mixtures of rolls, flams and wood hits; marvel at how the reverberating halo of a lone tubular bell accompanies the subsequent evolutions literally for minutes; embrace the combination of ear-piercing metal and glimmering upper partials elicited by the bowing of a cymbal.

Short pauses appear like tacets of an imaginary score, resulting more efficacious as one knows that they’re instead dictated by sheer acumen. Multiply these elements and their mutable amalgamations for a hundred types of unusual propulsion to learn how life’s actual heartbeat is not explainable just in twos and threes – or zeros and ones, for that matter – and why silences don’t need to be filled with cheap talk when someone is taking a breath.

On the clarinets – Eb, Bb and alto – Fine furtherly investigates the acoustic properties of the venue; not only by providing us with disparate codes (and brusque interruptions/removals thereof) but also walking around the room to experiment with different balances of resonant harmonics and – of course – with the “close to/distant from the microphone” ratio. In this set we’re probably experiencing the hardest challenge in terms of mentally remaining on a par with the musician’s abrupt turns.

A considerable quantity of strident passages, raucous shrills and toneless whirlwinds won’t help listeners whose idea of a clarinet coincides with the name Benny Goodman. This is tough substance for the inexpert: no concession whatsoever to any type of polishing, notwithstanding the instrumental refinement on display. The sometimes implausible velocity, the compression of the senses, momentary quietude introducing even harsher sentences. The nervous staccato. And those impossible-to-predict flicks of the switch turning a given section of the improvisational current into a thorough cleansing of the self. If some self is left, that is.

I have stated this many times, and will repeat it here for the previously absent friends. Besides being a rare specimen of multi-instrumentalist well versed in every instrument he plays – I know for a fact that several hours of practice are put in on a daily basis – Fine has always been recognized by yours truly as a rather extraordinary pianist. “Extraordinary” should be considered in the literal acceptation: on the far side of the ordinary.

Why? For starters, his style resembles nobody else’s: that is in itself fundamental to establish the sort of noble coherence that separates the top ranks from the mere participants. We can listen to the entire solo piano disc of this triptych without locating a single hackneyed phrase by searching with a lantern. Second, and most important: Fine’s instinctive proficiency on the keyboard is expressed fast enough to let us forget about “memorization”. And yet the ensuant music yields a sense of metaphysical commitment to the moment, atypical progressions and flurries ultimately carved in the stone of a superior level of simultaneous perceptions.

Little by little, an all-encompassing wholeness takes shape. Difficulties abound; connections are definitely visible. When a decision is made to rumble on the lower regions of the Bösendorfer, the vibrational impact outweighs any semblance of “arpeggio”. The extreme fragmentation of a dissonant angularity and the systematic jumping across the registers push Fine nearly beyond his physical limitations; amazing dynamic shifts recall his drumming sensibility. Suddenly we may be greeted and, in a way, calmed by reflective chordal interludes, the intrinsic narrative causing the unheralded mnemonic retrieval of bittersweet flashes. We never seem to find the guts to get rid of melancholic mementos. But it is exactly in those fleeting instants of sorrowful realization that the playing reaches its emotional zenith.

Finding such an assortment of forward-looking intuitions unaffected by the mold of formulas is infrequent. Had I to suggest a method for the uninitiated to approach Fine’s sound world, I’d recommend starting from the piano material. From that point on, everything – including the harder-to-grasp communications sent via the other tools – becomes as clearly delineated as branches and leaves projected in the sky.


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