Of all contemporary ambient musicians combining piano with synthesisers, American composer Tim Story is one of the most distinctive and fascinating. On first hearing it's easy to make comparisons with Californian ambient pianist and chamber musician Harold Budd, not surprising given that both composers have been influenced by late-19th Century French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).
country of origin:
Ambient piano, modern chamber, electro-acoustic
70's - 10's
- Glass Green (1987, Windham Hill)
- Beguiled (1991, Hearts Of Space)
- The Perfect Flaw (1994, Hearts Of Space)
- Abridged: Selected Miniatures 1979-86 (1996, Hearts Of Space)
- Shadowplay (2001, Hearts Of Space)
- Caravan soundtrack (2005, Nepenthe Music)
with Hans-Joachim Roedelius:
- Lunz (2002, Gronland/Nepenthe Music)
- Inlandish (2008, Gronland)
- Lazy Arc (2014, Seventh Chance Music)
Reviewed by Mike G
Of all contemporary ambient musicians combining piano with synthesisers, American composer Tim Story is one of the most distinctive and fascinating.
On first hearing it's easy to make comparisons with Californian ambient pianist and chamber musician Harold Budd, not surprising given that both composers have been influenced by late-19th Century French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925). Satie was consciously anti-dramatic and shunned the pompousness of Romantic symphonic music in favour of complex, spacious, melodic music for solo piano and small ensembles. Hearts Of Space Records founder Stephen Hill eloquently describes this school of composers as “exploring the emotional poetics of ambiguity and irony with fresh unusual harmonies and subtle disarming melodies...what appears simple on first hearing mysteriously expands, unfolds and ultimately beguiles with time and repetition”.
But Tim Story's electro-acoustic music is somewhat more structured than Budd's. Budd is an impressionist; Story seems more concerned with feelings than pictures, though he displays a comparable talent for writing piano melodies of skin-tingling beauty and shaping them further with subtle, tasteful electronic textures and occasional woodwind or strings.
His earliest work - from the 70's up to the mind 80's - is beautifully summed up on the compilation Abridged: Selected Miniatures 1979-86 (1996). But if you're new to his music, the best place to start is his lone solo album for Windham Hill Records called Glass Green (1987), plus the trilogy of albums for Hearts of Space Records that followed it - Beguiled (1991), The Perfect Flaw (1994) and Shadowplay (2001).
These four albums capture Story at his apogee of his craft, composing in a quasi-chamber music style that is uniquely personal. They seamlessly blend acoustic instrumentation like cello and woodwind with the distinctive piano-synth combination he was developing on his earlier albums. The sound is a little denser, and there's some less pronounced piano lines than previous work - in fact some of the best tracks have no piano at all - but the rich harmonies and ambiguous, haunting qualities remain. Beguiled in particular is an emotional, mysterious and utterly compelling piece of work. That Windham Hill Records rejected the album back in 1991 almost beggars belief; their loss was Hearts Of Space's unqualified gain.
In the 2000's and beyond Tim Story's discography features mainly collaborations. His second, third and fourth albums with Krautrock icon Hans-Joachim Roedelius from Cluster are outstanding. The two are longtime friends and prove to be natural collaborators. Both of them have a history blending piano and keyboard music with with electronic colours and studio treatments, and the electro-acoustic music of their trilogy Lunz (2002), Inlandish (2008) and Lazy Arc (2014) will appeal to fans both artists. The emotional ambivalence and touching humanity that Story's music evokes so well is in also in full flower here, helped by Rodelius' gift for textural invention and melodies and that go beyond simply pretty. Who plays what on Lunz is uncertain, but on Inlandish the piano is by Roedelius, with Story crafting the orchestrations, synthesised sounds and studio treatments. Lazy Arc is the weirdest of the three; it has less Budd-like piano pieces and is more experimental-sounding than its two predecessors. (Note: Story also produced Cluster's excellent final album Qua in 2009).
The fine film soundtrack Caravan (2005) is a rare post-2000 solo outing. It takes a number of sonic detours, including less piano and more in the way of orchestral landscapes, though it is not a major departure from the signature style he perfected on his Hearts Of Space releases. With 22 tracks contained on a single disc most of the pieces are short and - in his typical style - not necessarily sweet. It's a very good album, if not the best introduction to his work. For fans wanting to dig further, Story has also recorded some collaborations with Dwight Ashley, as well as an intriguing solo album of quirky downtempo electronica called Buzzle (2006).
I'll leave a summary of Story's music to the man himself. “Despite it’s simplicity, this music is not often easy”, he writes in the sleeve notes to Beguiled. “Nor is its emotional impact, though powerful, usually cheerful or happy. At its best such music resonates with a simple truth, and it is as sublime and complex, as inextricable from life, as delight or sorrow”. If that sounds appealing then buy one of Tim Story's classics, sit with it patiently and let time reveal its shadowy pleasures.