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Review: Thomas Newman and Rick Cox: 35 Whirlpools Below Sound

Newman-Cox 02c for web35 Whirlpools Below Sound is a new CD by Thomas Newman and Rick Cox recently released on the Cold Blue Music label. The 19 tracks on this release are mostly short – from just over 30 seconds to 7 minutes – but together comprise an hour of electro-acoustic works that are intriguingly experimental and richly varied. These pieces were composed jointly by Thomas Newman and Rick Cox over the many years of their musical partnership.

The first track, A Well Staring at the Sky is typical of this CD in the way it evokes a vivid image of surreal loneliness. There is the brief sound of an accordion playing a vaguely familiar street tune and this gives way to the swooshing sound of strong wind accompanied by a few piano notes and a low bass rumbling underneath. Now there is a rattling sound – perhaps some underground pipes – and brief snatches of a piano passage followed by the sound of a music box. All of this is packed into a little more than three minutes but there is the distinct feeling of having been alone for an afternoon in some wind-blown and abandoned desert town.

Other tracks contain similarly striking imagery, often built from unusual sounds. Slate Overture starts with bubbling and clacking, as if standing before some giant alien chemistry experiment. A repeating passage of light bells is heard overhead as a metallic, alien sound is infused into the mix. The mysterious bubbling returns, louder now, building drama but also inspiring am sense of awe before it fades at the finish. Negative Rhythm includes the same scratchy bubbling sound and has a similar feel and texture. Negative Rhythm develops into a slow rolling roar, like a distant volcano with ribbons of flowing lava. A recognizably organic sound, but one made from unnatural sonic materials; the result is convincing and intimidating.

Some of the pieces include familiar acoustic instruments that provide the listener a welcome handhold. Paper Thin, for example, is 40 seconds of repeated and layered music box sounds. Stair contains ominous, deep piano notes with warbling, meandering clarinet tones that add to a mysterious, sinister feel. Some wooden knocking is heard, as if something malevolent is stirring about. Other tracks are pure electronics such as Carapace, a piece that contains the boops and beeps of a retro arcade game. Carapace is active and busy, with some brief moments of unintelligible speech and disjointed guitar riffs. There is a nostalgic feel to this, like standing inside an arcade surrounded by people playing video games.

The variety of sounds and emotions in 35 Whirlpools Below Sound is impressive, and not all of them evoke a mystery or menace. Goldmine Nectarine is smooth and welcoming, like sitting in a warm bath. Smith’s Arcade features tones slipping and sliding around, a sense of uncontrolled imbalance as if we are looking at fun house mirrors. Or Pluton Creek, a piece that joyfully contains 50 seconds of melodious playfulness.

35 Whirlpools Below Sound is a skillfully realized work that takes us to places we have only dreamed of, using sounds that work on our imagination in new and exciting ways.

This CD is available now from Cold Blue Music, CB0040.