You see an album from an alumnus of U of C who graduated with a Ph.D. in Composition. You buy it because you are feeling generous and because the composer is pictured, Kill Bill- style, with a kimono and sword (this picture, by the way, should be on the front cover and not the back). You notice that all but three of the tracks are longer than six minutes, and you wonder what songs like “Quintet for Strings & Computer” and “G-VRAN” will sound like.
As it turns out, they sound a lot like what a U of C grad student would make! “Make” is the key word, because John Shirley is a composer in the true sense. He has placed groups of sound together, manipulated them, rearranged them, and ended up with Sonic Ninjutsu.
The album is hard to describe in terms of other music, which is not at all a bad thing, but does mean that the first adjective that comes to mind is “weird.” And it is weird. The primary instrument is Shirley’s collection of processors and synthesizers, through which he filters everything else, such as guitar, clarinet, piano, and cello. Such a dependence on electronics gives Shirley a huge soundscape and an opportunity to wring out something new from the noises we are used to hearing. In “P-mod,” for instance, he spends 15 minutes examining theme, timber, and dynamics, as the notes converge and unravelsometimes making recognizable wholes, sometimes not.
To my ears, Sonic Ninjutsu is basically a percussive album, since melody is ignored and time signatures seem to be the most constant element within the songs. It is also, thankfully, a very funny album. “G-VRAN,” which is my favorite, is based “entirely around…sickly vocalizations,” and sounds like what aliens might dance to, if they had not been to a party in a long time. Shirley has created a song cycle that is more process than result. If you keep this in mind, you can probably listen all the way through a few songs.