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Christopher Adler blows Laotian breezes via the khaen, a traditional mouth organ

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
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While most creative musicians dabble with so-called ethnic instruments in an effort to expand the tonal and timbral range of their work, San Diego's Christopher Adler takes the concept to another level. He is the lone person in the West -- if not on the entire planet -- creating a modern repertoire of solo and ensemble compositions for the khaen, a traditional mouth organ popular in Laos and Northeast Thailand.

With its 16 bamboo pipes and tiny metal reeds, a khaen sounds similar to an accordion, a harmonium, or a diminutive set of bagpipes (if there were such a thing). On "Lai Soi/Lai Noi An Nangseu," an improv piece based on a traditional Laotian tune, Adler's supple technique and sensitivity to dynamics produce lush melodies that seem to float on a sea breeze, while on "Telemetry Lock" he layers a flurry of snowflakelike notes on top of an undulating harmony. In contrast, Adler uses a much slower motif to drive "Epilogue for a Dark Day," a somber 12-minute meditation that rides minimalist repetition and hypnotic drones to a trance state.

Adler's compositions freely incorporate elements from Southeast Asian playing, including the replication of vocal phrasing, the usage of other traditional instruments such as the ranaat ek (Thai xylophone), and a uniquely Eastern improvisational approach. Stunningly distinctive yet steeped in tradition, Adler's work stands as a testament to the power of global-minded musicmaking.

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Sam Prestianni

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