Elders is the debut release from Ensemble Nist-Nah, a nine-piece percussion group led by Nantes-based Australian drummer and percussionist Will Guthrie. The diverse group of French musicians that make up Ensemble Nist-Nah – whose collective experience encompasses traditional Gamelan performance, contemporary composition, noise, jazz, and everything in between – perform on drum kits, traditional and junk percussion, and a complete set of Javanese Gamelan instruments. Though building on the foundations of Guthrie’s solo work with Gamelan instruments (Nist-Nah, BT057) and primarily performing his compositions, Ensemble Nist-Nah is a collective endeavour, propelled by a breathtaking enthusiasm that has seen the ensemble manage to rehearse, perform, and even tour Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
From the first seconds of opening track ‘Geni / Tirta’, it becomes immediately obvious that this is no dry academic exercise or exotic indulgence. Rapid arpeggiated figures are propelled by manically busy kit drumming while slow-motion melodic lines float above. After a series of abrupt tempo changes and fragmented unison passages that crossbreed the rhythmic intensity of the Balinese Kecak with the joyride of an Ornette Coleman head, the music slows to a monumental groove, equal parts Javanese court music and Dark Magus. Another sequence of thrilling divagations leads us to the unexpected guest appearance of acclaimed vocalist Jessica Kenney, who elaborates a haunting Javanese Bedhaya across a spacious backdrop of massive gong hits, shimmering cymbals, rustling bells, and gritty textures.
The remaining pieces that make up Elders explore a dizzying variety of approaches, from the shifting rapid-fire muted textures of ‘Overtime’ to the ghostly bowed tones and ominous swells of the title piece (developed from a track on Guthrie’s solo Nist-Nah release), which gradually builds into waves of shuddering low resonance and asynchronous percussive clicks like a haunted clock mechanism. On the aptly titled ‘Rollin’, virtuosic twin drum kits criss-cross errant metallophone patterns in propulsive polyrhythms, while ‘Planeker’ manages to achieve a bizarrely effective fusion of Harry Partch and Autechre. Arriving bedecked in beautiful monochrome images of gongs drawn by ensemble member Charles Dubois, Elders is a feast for the ears: music that burrows deep into timbral and rhythmic possibility while possessing an intoxicating physicality and revelling in the joy of collective performance.