More than simply an innovative and endlessly intriguing ambient, poetry and organic instrument driven world music collection, Play the Earth is the epic culmination of multi-talented artist Epaminondas Trimis’ lengthy career as a jazz and new age music percussionist and instrument builder. As we venture through his inviting and hypnotic and sonically detailed celebration and interaction with the planet’s sacred foundational elements, we can also marvel at his multi-decade resume that includes appearances on 60 albums, countless live performances (including one at the White House for President Clinton) and instruments he crafted being played by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the bands of Madonna and Phil Collins.
Yet the best juncture to start telling the story of how “Nonda” came to create these fascinating, richly textured 11 tracks (featuring the lovely, emotionally impactful poetry of his mother, renowned poet, novelist and musician and educator Michaele Benedict) is the late 90s recording session in Bismarck, North Dakota for the soundtrack music to Ken Burns’ “Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.” Working with native peoples, the composer felt inspired to start making instruments from Earth’s natural materials.
Setting his eye on a saw blade Sitting Bull once struck led to research that uncovered some interesting connections. Sitting Bull would sing taunting songs out to the soldiers at Fort Buford. Nonda realized that the Hunkpapa Lakota leader was also a percussionist was another point of inspiration. Lakota Elder Cedric Goodhouse pretty much sealed the deal when he gave Nonda the name “Plays the Earth.” Musically, the early foundations of the Play the Earth aesthetic have their roots in “Suite For Sitting Bull,” a sound poem (of sorts) Nonda composed for flutist Gary Stroutsos’ 1996 album Winds of Honor.
Though it took over two decades for Nonda for those inspirational flashpoints to develop into the concept that ultimately evolved into Play the Earth, the patience it took is a testament to making sure every spoken word, every “Droplet” of sound and every element was perfectly reflected. Each track is a thematic universe unto itself, with the music composed of instruments from each element described in the poetry. Michaele would provide the eloquent verse – praising the treasure we can find in what on the surface seems to be “Junk,” or ruminating on the functions and color of “Skin,” for instance – and Nonda would use those words as a launching point for the musical compositions.
When you listen, please have the gorgeous full color booklet with old school typed words on it. For each track, we are treated to Michaele’s work - some recited by Nonda, others by Johanna Cireneo (“Skin,” “Droplets”) and Kris Ann Trimis (“Birds”) - the array of instruments featured (including exotic oddities like Cuica, garden weasel, opera gong, Mazdaphone and calabash gourds!) and, at the end, single paragraph summaries from Nonda on what each song is about.
Since these pieces are best appreciated as impressionism based on themes and elements, it makes sense to thoughtfully share a few adjectives that popped into my head when listening to each track. “Junk”: hypnotic, lyrical, exotically soothing. “Skin”: percussive, jungly, booming, raw. “Clay”: tribal, sparse, earthy, soaring bird calls. “Gourd”: soulful, swaying, plucky. “Droplets”: freeflowing, ambient, cleansing. “Bamboo”: forest, mysterious, immersive, darkness/light contrast. “Bone”: heartbeat, clicking, snapping, whimsical melodic chirps; “Birds”: ambient, transcendent, joyful, soaring. “Wood”: polyrhythmic, African tinged, playfully melodic. “Shells”: lonesome, transcendent tribal chanting, ocean waves, rhythm of the universe.
Nonda has a powerful multi-faceted autobiographical explanation for the closing title track “Playing the Earth,” including a reflection on the manual typewriter sounds, but the best way to summarize it is that through listening, we venture towards awakening. Guarantee, even if you’ve listened to thousands of ambient, Native American and world music albums in your lifetime, you’ve never heard anything quite as eye and ear opening as this.
Listen to Play the Earth here: https://open.spotify.com/album/32EymEM6boZwox3gsi5vdF