Almost Touching: an epic debut of classical guitar / spoken word / electronics experimentation

An Laurence, Almost Touching, United States, People Places Records, PPR033 2 x CD (2022)

An epic achievement in itself, this double CD set would be a major work at any stage of a solo artist’s career, let alone at the beginning of that artist’s career – and yet Montreal-based musician An Laurence Higgins, trained in classical guitar, has done just that with varied music that includes classical guitar playing, spoken word poetry and duets of guitar and blasting electronic sounds. “Almost Touching” revolves around five works, one of which is a mind-boggling hour-long “Chants d’amour” (“Love songs”) set, composed by Elischa Kaminer, of eleven movements of jaw-dropping juxtapositions of sound worlds millions of light years apart in mood, volume dynamics, use of instruments and instrument combinations, and genres. The other five works are songs of varying lengths by four other composers that seem more orderly and cohesive in composition and a little bit easier on the ear.

Overall, the album presents in a quiet, intimate minimalist style, with two tracks within “Chants d’amour” being entirely spoken-word lyrics by An Laurence, so the moments where harsh electronics erupt in tracks like “Chants d’amour: introduction” can be unnerving. The entire album though is a protean beast in which almost anything can and does happen: the one track that might represent the entire album in microcosm is “Chants d’amour: V chant d’amour” where spoken-word French-language poetry rubs shoulders with pure-toned crooning, noisy distorted drone-ambient electronic melodies, ear-splitting blasts of electric guitar and percussion pitter-patter somewhere in the middle. Of course, if you’re here to listen to classical guitar melodies ranging from quiet pensiveness to sudden anger in mood, with some orchestral (synth?) accompaniment and electronics protruding here and there, there are plenty of those as well.

Packaged as it is, the album presents a formidable listening experience and the 11-track “Chants d’amour” work might have been better off released separately and the other four tracks released as an EP as some of them are fairly lengthy themselves. They all demand quite close listening, and the volume dial will certainly get a workout as you proceed through the album, but the interplay between different instruments representing varied genres of music – which perhaps reflects An Laurence’s own experience as a Quebec resident of Chinese origin who was adopted as a child by a French Canadian family – ensures that you will be hearing plenty to surprise and intrigue you. An Laurence’s career as a classical guitarist and experimental musician will certainly bear watching.