Ilari Kaila draws deeply on many diverse styles, from postminimalism to the Romantic and even the most elegant side of 70s art-rock: it’s impossible to pigeonhole his music. The most striking feature of the Aizuri Quartet’s all-Kaila album with pianist Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down – streaming at Spotify – is what a great tunesmith he is. He’s the rare composer who has absolutely no fear of being anthemic. He likes to build on hypnotically circling, clustering riffs. Bell-like figures are also a recurrent trope on this record, balanced by both airy and kinetic phrasing from the strings.
The album begins with the title track, a requiem for pianist Hanna Sarvala. There’s a striking, plaintive horn-like riff echoed ethereally in the high strings; Kim enters emphatically with an incisive, chiming melody, the quartet wafting and diverging behind her. An insistent upward drive follows, up to a rippling neoromantic Kim cadenza. Again, the strings recede: Sarvala must have been a forceful presence, echoed in Kim’s resonant waves. Kaila brings it full circle with a sad pavane fthat builds to an anxious eighth-note melody against Kim’s assertive chords.
Flutist Isabel Gleicher joins Aizuri violist Ayane Kozasa and the pianist for the dancing, hypnotically circling, jaunty Cameo. Again, bell-like piano figures come to the forefront, the flute adding a bittersweet harmonic element.
Kim and the Aizuris’ cellist Karen Ouzounian contrast resonance and ripples as they gather steam in the duo piece Hum and Drum, then the cello breaks free and flutters along with the piano’s brisk, precise belltone figures and contrasting, stern lefthand. A puckish bit of pizzicato and Debussy allusions liven the mood.
A warily rustling riff hits a big, austerely blues-tinged peak. fades and then rises through a terse interweave in Wisteria, the first of the string quartet pieces. Taonta, a five-part suite for solo piano, has an introduction that Kaila calls a sarabande, shifting from a coy scamper to an unexpected somberness. Hypnotic waves of belltones permeate the second part, Rosary. Xianwei: Tail-Biting Fish is an evocative portrait of floating and sudden dives. The chiming title segment is a bracing, artfully spacious blend of the trancelike and the acerbic. Kaila brings a return to spaciousness versus animation in the final segment, The Caudal Fin: it’s the tail end, get it?
Jouhet, a second string quartet piece, takes its name from an ancient Finnish lyre and was written to commemorate the centennial of that country’s republic. Kaila weaves a series of stark folk themes together, the biting textures of the viola and cello ceding to the clustering violins of Ariana Kim and Miho Saegusa. A subtly stairstepping passage that brings to mind early ELO backs away for a bit of a stately canon, whirling accents and then a darkly spinning dance. This is fascinatingly colorful music, and the quartet and their accomplices attack it with relish.