CD, Ant-Zen/Dear Oh Dear Records, 2009
Philip Glass and Steve Reich aren’t composers I ever expected to be brought to mind by an Ant-Zen release, but this is just what happened on hearing “Genus”, a joint release between Ant-Zen and Dear Oh Dear Records, the label of British composer John (Joby) Talbot, working here with American electronica artist Deru (Benjamin Wynn). Their collaboration is the soundtrack to a dance work based on Darwin’s discovery of evolution.
“Genus” is immaculately produced and recorded and is often seductive, but can also be almost painfully tasteful. “Transmutation (pt.1)” opens the album with Reich-like choral voices gradually emerging and developing. Here there’s an interesting tension between austerity and more expressive textures heard later in the album. For listeners used to harsher and darker textures “Genus” may be most valuable as a sensory refresh or cleansing before diving back into harsher works. Alongside the voices and strings are the electronic elements, which are sometimes just a barely perceptible ‘sheen’ hanging over the music, but at other times are more tangible. When they do come through they sound like a continuation of the old “clicks and cuts” style associated with the much-missed German label Mille Plateaux.
Another inescapable association here is Murcof, probably the most respected combiner of contemporary classical sounds and electronica. Murcof’s work has made such an impression that it it’s now hard not to sound like it when combining electronics and contemporary classical. Yet despite the formal similarities, “Genus” is generally much brighter and more affirmative in tone than Murcof.
The two parts of the title track move away from the electronica textures, bringing to mind Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The strings on Part 1 are both melancholy and idyllic, and this is the most affecting piece here. “The Great Tree Of Life” conjures images of a horribly over-earnest choir at some mid-West college, but it just about keeps the earnestness in check, occasionally offsetting it with slightly darker textures. This mode continues into Part 2, which fades into silence and a startling short sequence of harsh digital clicks.
How well you tolerate the earnestness may depend on your attitude to Darwin, who for some has become a sort of secular saint. The renewed media and cultural interest in Darwin and genetic research over the last few years coincided with the rise of Enron-style market Darwinism. In the Anglo-American context there’s a sinister political ‘hidden reverse’ to the veneration of Darwin which “Genus” contributes wholeheartedly to. It displays little of the tension, violence and extinctions associated with evolution, nor does it allude to the darker aspects of Darwinist fundamentalism. This beatific, uncritically affirmative take on Darwin is most obvious in the two beautifully filmed videos that end the disc, featuring idyllic landscape sequences and highly aestheticised footage of scientific experiments. Darwin worshippers will find their ideal work of art here, but those who without such unquestioning faith may sometimes find it a queasier and even vaguely sinister proposition.
— Alexei Monroe