Nathan Schram is a Grammy-winning composer and violist with The Attacca Quartet in New York. Schram has quite a resume, having collaborated with artists like David Crosby, Becca Stevens, David Byrne, Itzhak Perlman and many others. His recordings with Attacca have been released on Sony Classical, GroundUP Music, Nonesuch and New Amsterdam Records. His record Orange won the Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance in 2020. His newest solo release is titled Nearsided on which he creates nearly all the music and sounds himself.
Like many artists caught in the pandemic, Schram decided to use his down time to “learn new instruments, production techniques and artistic perspectives. This album is a product of me realizing that I didn’t have to be held back by anything any more. If I wanted to make music on synthesizers, I would. If I wanted to sample and chop vocal samples from my wife, Becca Stevens, I would. If I wanted to write a nearly unplayable string quartet with an equally unwieldy electronic drum track, I did.”
Schrams’ influences are diverse, ranging from Mahler’s symphonies to Radiohead’s Kid A to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid. Schram co-produced the album with Christopher Botta, with mixing by Botta and mastering by Nate Wood. Schram says he wants listeners to “walk away like one does with a great movie. A little laughing, a little crying and a big breath of fresh air.”
“Golden Gate” sets the tone of the album in titanic fashion, almost literally: it suggests huge fog horns or ship horns, as well as the wall-of-sound keyboards from the very first Alice Cooper track ever recorded, “Titanic Overture.” However he did it, it’s an amazing and immersive sound.
“Portalegre” is the track where Schram creates “subtle chattering rhythms” by sampling and editing his wife’s treated vocals, which give them a Kate Bush feel. To this layman the beat feels African, with expansive string overdubs, unleashed synths and sound manipulations pulling it all together. It’s wild music, but never less than beautiful no matter how far out it seems. Additional contributions are by Antonio Sanchez. There’s a long rising chord in the middle, like the orchestral hurricane from “A Day In The Life” transposed to a different artist. Many of the vocal tracks sound like they’ve been pitched a full octave, which is an eerie, munchkin-like sound that I really like.
“Pathetique” is described by Schram as an “Intense, focused performance (that is) both emotional and suggestive of a haunted extremity.” I’m not sure I understand what he means, but this track again features manipulated vocals and synth/piano tracks that bend and melt and even bleed across the audio canvas. For me it evokes windswept desert vistas in a scorching heatwave. Shahzad Ismaily contributes Moog and “further treatments.” Schram’s viola is clearly the main player, though it takes a while for the familiar tones of that stringed instrument to fully form in ones’ ear.
“Bad Dance Moves” features what Schram calls “playful clapping and tight grooves, (with) a core melodic figure surrounded by numerous further layers.” This track is further evidence of Schram’s facility with editing and production: you can tell that the samples are all quite different, but they all fall in line to the wild, unpredictable beat Schram has subjected them to. Schram’s speed and virtuosity on viola here rivals Jimi Hendrix. High energy and recorded with unchecked abandon. Love it!
“Interlude” is a shorter track that feels like chamber music in a haunted forest. Melodies and variations all share the same sonic space, sounding familiar yet also like a broadcast from the furthest reaches of the Universe. “In Medias Res” brings us a bit closer to earth, as it resembles traditional chamber music a bit more, though with a wild “Mountain Man” beat and almost guitar-like slashes on the cello or standup bass. The riffs collected and performed here are constantly surprising, with a prog-like array of time signatures. Christopher Both and Andrew Yee also appear.
“Waterbear” is a special song for Schram, as it was written in the aftermath of grieving a miscarriage: “It’s about beauty and loss and of the spiritual connection to things that don’t, and won’t, exist. It’s a precious monument to the smallest and briefest lives… an accompaniment to a snippet of documentary footage that never was.” Without knowing this I’m not sure how I would have approached this track, as it feels alternately frightening and weirdly comforting. Again, Schram creates chamber music from some kind of parallel universe, with his viola performances always compelling, even while seemingly having trouble breaking through from his world to ours.
“Where We Are Not” ends the album with a collaboration with a certain David Crosby, who I believe you may have heard of. “For both David and I, this song is about friends each of us lost in the past and what they left behind.” The melodies here are deeply felt and heartrendingly beautiful, and it’s impossible to know where Schram ends and Crosby begins, or vice versa. It’s clearly the most traditionally classical track and a nice conclusion.
Though I’ve done my best to describe the music within this fine work, there’s really no substitute for experiencing it yourself, and I urge you to give this amazing and challenging artist a listen.
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