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Alex Cline’s Flower Garden Orchestra: Oceans of Vows (Cryptogramophone)

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Alex Cline's Flower Garden Orchestra: "Oceans of Vows"
Alex Cline’s Flower Garden Orchestra: “Oceans of Vows”

One cannot fully comprehend the depths of Buddhist philosophy through a quick read on the subject. The collection of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures often referred to as the Flower Garland Discourse usually numbers over 1,000 pages when it’s translated into English. Casual reading it is not. In keeping with that idea, Oceans of Vows, percussionist Alex Cline’s lengthy composition, also requires a focused listen in order to grasp its nuances. To create Oceans of Vows, he combined excerpts from the Flower Garland Discourse with four poems written by his Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. To bring the work to life, Cline enlisted a 14-piece ensemble including two electric guitarists (one, his twin brother Nels), string instruments from the West (violin, cello, bass) and East (erhu, zhonghu, zheng, qin), flutes, electric keyboards, samplers, percussion and vocals. The 10-part piece spreads out over two discs and lasts two hours.

From the opening track, it’s clear this music will take its time on its journey. An archival recording of a monastery Great bell (a recurring theme throughout) tolls just three times but takes nearly a minute to resonate and fade. An ominous wave of gongs and electronics slowly make their way in afterward, and for nearly half of this track, “The Tree of Enlightenment,” the music feels like it’s waking up before settling into an undulating drone to accompany Areni Agbabian’s voice. “A Flash of Lighting” offers many styles in its 19 minutes. Voices in the distance give way to guitars that might evoke fusion if they weren’t so murky. That part collapses into another tranquil percussion section that could have come from an Art Ensemble of Chicago session. On “We Will Be Back Again,” Brad Dutz’s vibes, Nels Cline’s guitar and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s electric five-string violin build to a climax that again brings in the Great bell.

On disc two, the work continues to move from quasi-chamber music to the power-chord riff that drives “The Incalculable.” But the latter track exemplifies one of the album’s shortcomings: Agbabian’s voice is often mixed on the same volume level as the instruments. This doesn’t matter as much during the quieter moments, but the amplified setting of “The Incalculable,” and the way Agbabian occasionally leans on syllables operatically, makes the lyric booklet a necessity. Much like it did on DIRTY BABY, Nels Cline’s salute to visual artist Ed Ruscha, the Cryptogramophone imprint delivers Oceans of Vows with ambitious packaging. In a time when streaming overshadows tactile product, this set includes a 20-page text with the lyrics and a 44-page booklet of which 12 pages feature insights from the composer. It’s a deep read that brings clarity to the music.

Originally Published