This past April, while waiting to be admitted to the Splinter Reeds concert that was being given to launch Pamela Z’s 2017 ROOM Series, I fell into conversation with David Michalak. I had come to know Michalak through his lap steel work and his collaborations with instrument inventor Tom Nunn. He asked if I knew about his Ghost In The House group, and I said that I did not. Within a matter of days, the mail brought me copy of Second Sight, which, according to Amazon.com, was released on the Public Eyesore label on April 21. When I ran the announcement that Ghost In The House would be taking the opening set in the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series concert at the beginning of last month, I realized that I still had not yet listened to the album. Having now done so, my only regret is of the extent of my procrastination.
The core of Ghost In The House is a quartet that adds two highly contrasting performers to T.D. Skatchit, the name under which Michalak and Nunn give their duo performances. On the one hand there is Kyle Bruckmann playing the familiar instruments of oboe and cor anglais. At the other end is percussionist Karen Stackpole, playing on so many different instruments on Second Sight that the album jacket requires over four lines of text to enumerate them all.
That same album jacket also explains that each of the eight tracks is based on a scenario conceived by Michalak, which is then interpreted by the players through their collective performance. On two of the tracks Michalak has realized the scenario through text, which is narrated by “guest artist” (listed on the album jacket as a “Special Ghost”) Dean Santomieri; and on one of those tracks, “The Dream Machine,” the narration is supplemented with wordless vocalizing by Polly Moller. On another track, “Dockside Discovery,” Santomieri has provided his own text. Moller also plays bass flute; and other “Special Ghosts” are John Ingle on alto saxophone, Cindy Webster on saw, and Bart Hopkin on rumba box.
However, even in the absence of text, the narrative foundations of the tracks are unmistakeable. Some of them are pretty straightforward, which is the case in the opening track “Ghost Train (to nowhere),” which benefits from the illustration on the front cover of the album:
Other tracks involve more concrete sounds. On “Warning Signs” they are the sounds of penguins and Alaskan seals, meaning that warnings about global warming are coming simultaneously from the South Pole and the North Pole. “Low,” on the other hand, seems to have begun as an exploration of low-register sonorities from which the sense of an unspoken narration gradually seems to emerge.
What may be most striking about this album, however, is the prevalence of soft-spoken rhetoric across its eight tracks. It is clear that, whether or not they are actually realized through words, there is a rhetorical intensity behind the underlying narratives. Less clear is how much of the music on this album is composed and how much is improvised; but, given the priority of the narrative element, drawing that distinction does not necessarily impact the listening experience itself. Similarly, little is to be gained from deciding whether this album should be classified as chamber music or jazz. More important is that this is a highly inventive intermingling of music and narrative than makes for a thoroughly engaging listening experience.