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Review: Saint Octave by Steven Doman

29 October 2018

American composer Steven Doman’s new release “Saint Octave” is a selection of instrumental, ambient textures spread across nine tracks that are beautifully subtle and calming. The seeds of inspiration for this music were planted in 2016 during a road trip, in which Doman left his home in LA bound for Québec, Canada, finally settling in a small sideside town called Rivière-du-Loup. Here, the composer was able to reconnect with nature, while studying French and diving into learning analogue synthesis. Over 2017-2018, this produced a fruitful creative output, creating music for Grace Singh’s documentary film “Le Dernier Souffle” and the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” which forms the basis of this album.

Beginning with “Afloat,” sounds gently and gracefully leap from one moment to the next, as if dancing across lily pads in a lake of tone colour. Synths pulse, awash with colour as harmonies drift by, bright but slightly moody. “Cédrière” leads on with an old, clunky piano taking the lead, sounding almost as if the strings are being struck with soft brushes, rather than felt hammers. There is a delicacy to this sound which gives great character and depth to the timbre of the piano, shaded with distant harmonic frequencies. The steady rhythm of the piano mingles with synth that sounds somewhere between tenor flute and saxophone, with glimmers of melody stitched throughout. Next, “Sun Dog” opens with slowly bowed cello that is buzzy and brooding. Chunky chords ring out across the harmonic spectrum with the cello taking the lead over rippling sustained chord textures of blended synth, piano and strings. 

Moving into the middle of the album, “Frame” features another piano sound with a personality all its own, with the metallic, brassy nature of the strings adding a subtle tinge. This track is soft, gentle, delicate and haunting, augmented with mellow bass synth and sound texture composed of resonant, spacious, reverberant creaking sounds. In contrast, the piano in the following track “Snow Buntings” is a much more delicate, fluttering texture, very much like falling snow. Listening closer, the delicate filaments of piano texture seem to sound like crystals as they coalesce into snowflakes. Following on with “Gale,” a slightly melancholic little tune, we find ourselves in a daydream with layers of sound and a beautiful depth in synth pads. 

“Perrennial” features piano with a much more creaky sound to it, though its tune is pleasant, with a warm tone and a twinkling glimmer. Meanwhile, “Moss” is an experience of heightened senses amongst a feeling of lonely stillness. The solitude of this track is felt through delicate noises that leap to the fore, with a slow and brooding character in its haunting, echoed delay. Finally, “La Grève” leads the final sonic gesture beginning with a distant synth glimmer with the brightness of stars streaking by at light speed. Alto musings of viola meander among the grounding quality of piano chords which ring out beneath.  

One of the most satisfying aspects of this album is the way the composer is able to create a sense of variety between the tracks while still using common elements between them. The timbre of the piano especially varies from track to track, with each song having a piano bearing its own sonic signature. Paired with sound elements reminiscent of varied woodwinds and delicate synth, the album as a whole expertly walks the line between unity and variety. Add a little more here…. 

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