Sometimes, if you want to live the dream, you need to let the dream come to you. Just ask Rob Simonsen, who began playing the piano at a young age, picking out melodies he heard in his parent’s record collection, before, not long afterwards, he began composing for himself. It’s a habit that’s sometimes, by necessity, been set aside in the Los Angelean’s commissioned work as a distinguished soundtrack composer, a job whose nature generally insists upon enhancing the fruits of someone else’s imagination. Nonetheless, it’s one that’s at last gratifyingly indulged on his long-awaited solo debut, an elegant, affecting collection which puts the piano – though not just any piano – in the spotlight, furnishing it with blissful embellishments, both electronic and analogue.
That it’s entitled Reveries is indicative of the record’s chimerical nature. ‘Argenté’’s peace describes a silvery dusk, and ‘Aurore’ the sweet optimism of dawn, whose chorus is represented by the discreet use of a choir. ‘Ondes’ builds gently like the waves after which it’s named, its arrangement swelling and subsiding with a natural grace, while the exquisite ‘Coeur’ lingers over its heartfelt sentiments. There are, of course, echoes of others: one can identify respectful nods to, for instance, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie in ‘Envol’ and ‘Nuit Tombante’, while ‘Rêve’ offers a stillness A Winged Victory For The Sullen might crave. But even in ‘Spectre’’s restraint it’s clear Simonsen’s fashioned his own world, one every bit as enchanting as childhood’s raptures.
That said, Reveries’ title is indicative of something more profound: of allowing things to unfold in their own time. Not that Simonsen lacks ambition: since the early 2000s, he’s worked on an expansive list of film soundtracks, among them Foxcatcher, Nerve, The Way, Way Back and Jason Reitman’s forthcoming The Front Runner. There’ve been collaborations, too, notably with Mychael Danna – including 500 Days Of Summer – and contributions to Life Of Pi and Moneyball, as well as, earlier, outings under the name Frozen Light, encouraged by Keith Kenniff (Helios, Goldmund). But Simonsen’s been biding his time, quietly nursing the artistic flights of fancy in which he’d step out from behind the screen. When the stars finally aligned, he knew, these would seem rather less fanciful.
That moment was heralded in 2016, when Simonsen flew from Los Angeles to Paris to work on Hugo Gélin’s Demain Tout Commence. It was his first time recording in the city, and the engineers’ evident love for vintage analogue gear and microphones proved crucial. Their work at Studios St Germain – owned by the film’s music supervisor, Raphaël Hamburger – proved so satisfying that, when it was over, all involved agreed Simonsen should come back to record his oft-promised, oft-fantasised solo debut. Upon his return, however, the right piano proved elusive. Eventually, late one afternoon, Hamburger mysteriously bundled him into a borrowed car beside studio engineer, Stan Neff.
We drive out of Paris before sunset,” Simonsen remembers, “and we have no idea what we’re going to see. We come to a small village, and there’s a large barn there, with light spilling from inside. Our contact is standing out front with a glass of wine. We walk through the barn, which is full of pianos, some of the most wonderful I’ve ever played, then he brings us to another barn where there are even more. He leads us to a tall upright Bechstein. Once we played it, we knew it was the one. ‘This is the unicorn! This is the magic piano!’”
This quest for the perfect instrument, and the discovery of individuals whose recording habits chimed with his own aesthetic, was a dream come true for Simonsen, whose entire perspective on his art had already been transformed by a trip to Berlin to meet his friend, Dustin O’Halloran, a few years earlier. There he’d found himself surrounded by a nest of musicians whose lifestyles and creative approaches resonated in an unexpectedly deep fashion. Whether O’Halloran himself, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Francesco Donadello, Kira Kira, or Hauschka, these artists relished not only the creation of music, but also the manner in which it was made. “I came back to LA,” Simonsen recalls, “and thought, ‘I want to have those conversations here.’” So he co-founded The Echo Society, a non-profit artist collective, with a number of acquaintances and friends. They began setting up an annual show, at first working separately on their compositions and, later, collaborating, all the time encouraging one another artistically. It was another vital step towards Reveries.
Simonsen recorded Reveries with what he calls “this magical beast of a piano” in four 2-3-week sessions over the course of a year, composing for brass, for strings, for choir. Inspired by his European surroundings, and emboldened by both his adventures with The Echo Society and his experiences with his Berlin friends, the album represents the culmination of a lifetime of making music, a dream made serene reality. There are nine dreams, in fact, but having given them the necessary time and space to arrive, Simonsen is now eager to share them. As he knows only too well, one’s mind is always eager to wander. The trick is just to let it…