Before signing Balmorhea, a neoclassical group led by Texas natives Michael A. Muller and Rob Lowe, in 2020, the renowned German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon had never, to the group’s knowledge, represented a native Texan act in its then 122-year history. With a roster of international legends like Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, and Friedrich Gulda, the label’s lack of Texas talent was surprising considering the state’s vibrant history of classical music and, specifically, the German emigrant influence on this history.
But Lowe and Muller, who have created some of the most elegant, emotive neoclassical music of the past two decades—not just in Texas, but anywhere—are ideal contemporary representatives of Southwestern classical. Their dynamic sound combines Americana, folk, jazz, and classical, their compositions reveling in lush piano and fingerpicked guitar, field recordings and ambient electronics, string swells and the odd banjo pluck. The two musicians are clearly deft students of the twentieth-century classical canon, and their catalog resists regional idioms or tropes, appealing instead to a worldly, baroque sensibility. But listen a touch deeper, sit in the stillness of Muller and Lowe’s work, and a distinct Southwestern identity surfaces. It’s not just that the duo named themselves after the West Texas town and state park; this identity emerges from the music’s unerring elicitation of pastoral landscapes and high deserts, the abstruse yet indelible way Southwestern naturalism defines Balmorhea’s sonic palette.
On the musicians’ eighth studio album, Pendant World, they again recall the elemental expanse of Texas. Despite conceiving demos from afar—Muller moved from Austin to Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic; Lowe still lives in Austin—and recording the album in engineer Jonathan Low’s verdant, Vermont-based studio, Muller and Lowe are, as ever, attuned to the inspirations of their Texas-bred youth. Before forming the band in 2006, the pair met when they were kids at a summer camp in West Texas, playing their acoustic guitars beside a spring-fed pool next outside Leakey, where they realized that “this is kind of the physical representation of what we’re trying to do,” per Lowe. Earlier albums like River Arms and All Is Wild, All Is Silent wove in recordings of water, wind, tall grass blowing in the breeze, children playing outside, and silences experienced when removed from civilized life. Pendant World engages with these ideas subtly while also marking Muller and Lowe’s most direct and succinct work to date.
What makes Balmorhea’s oeuvre, and particularly the songs on Pendant World, so compelling is how the group rewards attention without requiring it. In an era of algorithmically insipid ambient music, Balmorhea’s sound proves to be more than pleasant background. Throughout the album, details, textures, and melodies collage into continual moments of delight. A song like “Step Step Step”—which Lowe particularly loves because “there’s nothing I’ve heard that sounds quite like it”—begins with a ruminative, meandering piano before ascending into a steady, guitar-and-string-backed percussive movement that holds until the drums drop and the strings return. “Oscuros,” too, splices a somber piano with drums and vocal coos, carrying a sense of melodic momentum even when it descends into quiet.
Despite the bending, sometimes circuitous nature of Balmorhea’s pieces, the songs here are grounded in haunting, forlorn melodies. After releasing 2021’s The Wind, an album Muller says is “more neoclassical and baroque, with a kind of acoustic spaciousness,” the duo made an effort to “intentionally be a little more succinct and direct to the point.” You can imagine a song like “Loess,” composed of piano chords sundering over a slow-burning synth pad and barely audible string swells, being drawn out and further evolved. But its restrained brevity (it’s less than three minutes long) pours into the next song, and that into the next, creating an intricate tapestry of tensions rising and falling, forming and dissolving, each climax and meditative movement bleeding seamlessly across performances or even within a single song, like on “Elsewhere,” in which a patient acoustic guitar dissipates into frantic fingerpicking and flute huffs.
Although Muller and Lowe are Balmorhea’s leaders and cofounders, they’re quick to describe the group as an ensemble. Indeed, on Pendant World they’re joined by frequent collaborators violinist Aisha Burns and cellist Clarice Jensen, as well as a slew of first-time guests, such as saxophonists Sam Gendel and Joseph Shabason. These musicians amplify Muller and Lowe’s mission to make exploratory, ephemeral, and earthy neoclassical compositions that feel both unbound from space and time and rooted in an authentic, idiosyncratic Southwestern character. “[Balmorhea is] kind of uniquely an Austin band,” Lowe said. “You’re a product of where you’re from and who you’re surrounded by, and I think there is something very specifically about the place that we’re from that allowed us to be what we are and make the kind of music we make.” Pendant World further crystallizes Balmorhea as inimitable proof that the spirit of Texas is as fluid and porous as it is recognizable.
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