A New Voice in Minimalism

Henry PlotnickFields (Holy Mountain, 2013)

Source: eMusic; click to go thereA mini-sensation at KZSU and KFJC in the Bay Area, and probably other college stations nationwide, Henry Plotnick has released an album-length keyboard suite that combines minimalist influences such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It’s compelling and bright, an admirable work. And Plotnick recorded it at the age of 11.

Piano/synth themes, washes of “strings,” and various sound effects combine to form what might seem, on the sruface, to be a new-agey symphony. Which by itself would be an accomplishment for an 11-year-old, but what sets it apart from the Mannheim Steamroller crowd is the insistent pulsing repetition that’s woven into most segments (hence the Glass/Reich comparisons) — it’s layers upon layers that build up slowly in each track, with counterpoint themes piling up to create the feel of a bustling department store at Christmas.

The melody can be a little cloying sometimes. “Field 1” opens with some straightforward major-key anthems, like a warmup (although it quickly shifts into more interesting keyboard patterns). The video-game-sounding melody on “Field 8” struck me as a bit trite, too — but as the counterpoint layers come in, the track becomes more wondrous.

Yes, I might be giving Plotnick extra points for his age. (And I hesitated to write about this at all, because I felt bad saying anything critical about an 11-year-old’s work. When I was 11, I barely knew how to program the TV remote. He’s writing symphonies. I don’t want to sap any of the joy he gets out of it. I honestly hope he doesn’t read his reviews, and I’m glad to find that he doesn’t seem to have a web site, although you can find a lot of him on YouTube, including this impressive hour-long piano improvisation.)

Whether he’s 11, 12, or 121, Plotnick has put together a professional album that works as one long concept. I like his sense of timing and drama in the transitions between the “Field” tracks. They don’t blend into each other either; it’s more that one idea stops and the next one starts without pause, and he’s engineered those spots well. Maybe it’s just something a radio DJ appreciates.

Plotnick can play, too. I liked the soloing of bells on “Field 3,” although they seem to fall behind the beat occasionally — which might be intentional, for all I know. “Field 5” puts analog/Moog-sounding synth in the lead voice, soloing in a rubbery, taffy-pulling way:

For a segment with a more challenging sense of harmony, there’s the intro to “Field 4,” where the strings and bass move at funny angles for a tense, foreboding framework:

Fields did quite well at KZSU in August and topped the station’s overall chart for one week in October. (That’s the overall weekly chart; Plotnick beat out Neko Case.) I had nothing to do with any of that; it was mostly the proselytizing of DJ Miss Information. I hope Plotnick isn’t in a hurry to do another album — he has to spend time being a kid, after all — but I’m more than happy to spread the word about what he’s done on here.

(Unrelated aside: Anybody remember a duo album with Harold Budd and Andy Partridge called Through the Hill? It’s got surface similarities to Fields, down to the geographic album titles and the pervasive use of keyboards. They’re very different projects, though. Fields is more dense and expansive — a wider field of vision, you might say, courtesy of the technological advances of the last 20 years.)