Written by: Paul Gleason
Back in 1723, a four-year-old Austrian boy began learning the clavier from his father. The boy’s mother recalled, “He could play [the clavier] faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time…. At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.”
The boy in question was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his father, Leopold, was his teacher.
11-year-old Henry Plotnick, like Mozart before him, is a childhood virtuoso, and his debut album Fields illustrates his indebtedness to his own teachers: Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, and Cluster. The already accomplished work on Fields shows Plotnick’s potential to achieve even greater heights in minimalist and electronic music, just as Mozart did when he composed his first “little pieces” at the age of five.
Fields consists of nine pieces, with titles like “Field 1,” “Field 2,” and so on. By not giving his tracks specific names and instead referring to them as “Fields,” Plotnick creates fields for sonic exploration, as well as open spaces for listeners to bring their own meaning to the work. Like the best ambient music, Fields leads to listener introspection.
“Field 1” is a terrific jumping off point for any discussion of Fields – and not just because it’s the first piece on the set. The song is about layers, with Plotnick combining synth strings that become slightly dissonant and keyboard parts that owe a lot to the minimalism of Glass, Riley, and Reich (listen to the Reichian percussive textures that enter halfway through the track). But the piece gains in density as the keyboards drift away from Plotnick’s influences. Its density serves to create a piece of sheer beauty that never mimics Glass but recalls the meditative nature of his music.
Plotnick’s “Fields” all run together, like the acres of grid-like farm land that you see when you fly over the American Midwest. This sense of totality – of the grandiosity and ambition of the album – lends to the profundity of Plotnick’s accomplishment and makes it feel American in the same way in which Glass, Riley, Reich, and Jarrett took European influences and refreshed them.
The use of percussive loops is crucial to this aspect of Fields. One doesn’t associate minimalistic and repetitive drumming with the European classical tradition. But Reich took drumming patterns from African, Asian, and Native American music and brought them into his music on albums like Drumming. Plotnick takes Reich as his starting point on “Field 3” and creates sparkly and complex rhythmic patterns, which he backs with a looped synth line. The result is an astonishing track that must be heard to be believed.
“Field 4,” in contrast, arrives directly from the Second Viennese School and the work of Arnold Schoenberg (who was a major influence on the American minimalists mentioned above, as well as on Plotnick). The music again explores dissonance – if not downright atonality – to lend it a frightening vibe. I’m reminded of Verklärte Nacht, Erwartung, and Pierrot Lunaire, as well as some of Jonny Greenwood’s string work for Radiohead.
Whereas “Field 5” amalgamates Mozart-sounding chamber music as played by Glass and bizarre Eno-esque synth sounds but eventually builds to a densely darker place that harkens back to “Field 4,” “Field 6” contains blurts of sound effects that work with the space and time in which they occur. Plotnick, however, goes on to fill the spaces with thick keyboard and synth sounds played at a fast pace. This tempo change highlights that all within the same piece, music can be slow, experimental, minimalistic, complex – you name it.
Fields concludes with its two epics: “Field 8” and “Final Field.” Both tracks clock in at over 10 minutes, with the former resounding soundly of Jarrett’s jazz. But, again, Plotnick doesn’t stop there and pay homage to Jarrett; rather, he constructs layers of sound that, again, evoke Reich’s percussive minimalism. “Field 8” impresses because it sounds like it’s reaching for something, especially as Plotnick’s playing becomes more frantic and synth strings enter. The strings combine with some excellent synth effects and blocky keyboard chords to provide the listener with some sense of resolution as the epic track comes to a close.
Energy incarnate, “Final Field” encompasses everything that’s great about Fields and brings the record to a close. The opening part sparkles with sound, and the track is simply triumphant with youthful enthusiasm. It’s as if Plotnick is aware that Fields is a very special accomplishment. The 17-minute track builds and gains in intensity with harmonized keyboard (which sound like harpsichords to me) and synthesizer layers. The strings that augment the preceding music enter halfway through the track, are simply thrilling, and bring the song and Fields to an amazing climax.
It’s silly to say that Fields sounds like the musical accomplishment of a person beyond Plotnick’s years. This much is obvious. But what isn’t obvious is where Plotnick will take his talents next. Let’s hope we find out soon. But for now we have a wonder year ahead of us, getting to know the tremendous Fields.