Ensemble is the brainchild of Frenchman Olivier Alary, a Renaissance man of sorts, whose 2000 debut album’s whimsical orchestral arrangements and delectable pop melody caught the ear of everybody’s favorite enigma, Bjork. Two Bjork remixes released as Sketch Proposal B-sides and a co-written song on her 2004 album later, this friendship launched Ensemble’s name to moderate popularity. The symphonic opus followup album, Ensemble, dropped in 2006, continuing in the same vein. Excerpts, though, presents Alary’s craft in its finest form, a collection of resonant and beautiful songs mirroring the greater theme of fragmented memory and reality – stating definitively that Bjork’s stamp of approval is not the only reason this project should receive attention.
Through the years, Alary has composed music for various museums, art exhibits, and multimedia projects, and scored multiple films. Instead of serving as a background for other showcased media, though, his intricate arrangements and talents shine as the stars of this album. Understated vocals characterize the times when there are words, which puts the pressure of making a dynamic, engaging album on the wide variety of instruments that are played throughout the course of Excerpts. Specific successful instances of this are the subtle interplay of strings and synths in tracks such as “Mirages” and the crescendo-ing tremolo unsettling a seemingly happy, sporadic piano melody on “Valse des Objets Trouvés”– both hinging, as the album does, on the instrumentation.
The album begins with an instrumental track, appropriately titled “Opening”. Eerie sustained tones alongside stringed vibrato crescendo slowly into a noisy fadeout, setting a strangely ominous score for what later proves to be a primarily upbeat outing. Mid-tempo pizzicato accompanied by atmospheric, sporadic piano introduces following song “Things I Forget”, and with its disparate dialogues that bombard the listener midway through, this track serves more accurately as an introduction to the thematic aim of work and a foreshadow of the instrumentation and lyrics to expect.
With vocals oscillating between French and English, song titles such as “Things I Forgot” and “Valse des Objets Trouvés (Waltz of the Lost and Found)”, references to “lives we choose”, and the aforementioned indiscernible dialogues, the album’s concern with the futility of memory strongly asserts itself. As the listener, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between what is ambient noise and what is supposed to be heard, and the listener is forced to make choices about which to remember. Forcing a more active listening experience further presses the role of selective, inconsistent, and fragmented memory in our human experience, and does so invitingly and skillfully.
The highlight of the album is the track that shares its name, “Excerpts”. An energetic orchestral quartet introduction subsides for lofty female vocals accompanied solely by atmospheric noise, pizzicato, and sporadic percussive thuds. Her voice is hypnotizing, as it vibrantly coos “Excerpts, excerpts, lives in brief”. The song is an exuberant one, rich in the sonic textures that characterize the entirety of the album.
For Olivier Alary, an artist interminably associated with his acquaintance with Bjork, Excerpts is a demonstration of talent unparalleled by his previous work, an emancipation from skeptical critics. For those who enjoy a contemplative stroll through the park on a Sunday afternoon, this album, paradoxically cohesive through its dissonance, perfectly scores that experience: it’s bright, intriguing, and calming. Take care to not actually consider it a soundtrack, though – Alary’s the focus here, truly having come into his own on this one.