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Sound Decision
Haibane Renmei!

by Jonathan Mays,

Haibane Renmei: Hanenone —Pioneer

Part Baroque and part ballet... and already your attention is drifting, right? You've been meaning to catch up on the pre-Bach European musical styles, but somehow the time has escaped you. This is the time to start. Kō Ōtani's Haibane Renmei score is a charming blend of 17th century music and movement, enhanced by Celtic and Jazz accents to create a marvelous aural experience.

The classical lean may be the most apparent trait of Haibane's music, but its dynamic nature is the most important. Instead of the typical “light-hearted” or “melancholy” pieces of most soundtracks, Otani's Haibane is fluid and imaginative. Sometimes the music develops slowly and methodically, and other times the entire mood shifts with a single note. But above all, it moves, ever reshaping itself with the ease and confidence of an accomplished dancer.

Selecting just a few pieces from Haibane's brilliant collection is an exercise in futility, so it's better to look at each individually. The first piece, “Refrain of Memory,” is the most complete of the eighteen, a fitting introduction to the world of Haibane. Employing everything from harp to violin, Otani brings us from crawl to sprint and back without once changing the tempo and with an ease rarely heard in animusic. Otani's in full control of this joyride.

If you don't already know, it'll take about fifteen seconds to figure out “Free Bird,” the second track, is Haibane Renmei's opening theme. It's more straightforward and repetitive than most of Otani's music, but this is where the composer's instrument selection really shines. An energetic violin/viola melody yields to a short piano interlude, but instead of returning the theme to the strings, Otani then turns it over to an elegant duo of piano and flute. There's not much music to stretch over two and a half minutes, but Otani's wise transfer keeps boredom from creeping into the picture.

“Toga” begins as an underwhelming eastern excursion until the piano comes out of nowhere and saves the entire piece after the minute mark. It's far from my favorite of the tracks, but sometimes the powerful strikes of a piano can overcome any lapse in musical creativity. This is one of those times. Traditional canon is the name of the game in "Breath of a germ", track number four. Otani has a little fun tossing an interval between flute and strings toward the end, but this one's mostly by the book. Corelli's book, that is—not exactly a bad guy to parallel. It's very mellow, and the performers are exceptionally careful to use a minimum of vibrato, allowing each tone a pleasing clarity and purity. Just don't listen to it while driving home late at night.

Lulled into slumber by the last two tracks? “Starting of the world” will wake you up! Very traditional Celtic dance is the focal point of this one, as a light viola beat complements the lively violin melody while the cello... doesn't do much of anything. Then the two switch places, and the cello... still doesn't do much of anything. Muted tambourine taps and squeaky spiccato from the violin make for a quirky but fun two-minute romp. The harpsichord makes a very rare appearance in “A little plate's Rondo,” giving the sixth piece a distinct colonial aura. This one's far too repetitive to entice multiple playbacks, but as a brief diversion, the formality of the flute-enhanced style is surprisingly delightful. If anything, it's just a bit underdeveloped.

“Silent Wonderland ~REM Dream~” introduces us to Otani's solo piano abilities as well as the sound of the Quena, an Andean flute. It's fuzzier than a normal recorder—perfect for a dream sequence. The composer chooses not to be too adventurous here, selecting instead a calmer, more mesmerizing tone. Though they're the loudest components of the piece, the drums are more of an afterthought to emphasize the piano development. Otani woke up as early as 2am to compose a few of his pieces; I bet this was one of them. “Song of Dream, Words of Bubble” is much like the previous track, relying on a single instrument to carry the restful theme. It is simple yet elegant, and the harp is better suited to this calming mood than the piano of track seven. Absent are Silent Wonderland's ornaments, leaving the dual harp lines as the only source of sound. Otani deftly uses silence as an expressive tool, creating a remarkably enchanting piece of music.

Track eight begins a gentle awakening with a more active piano and playful guitar strumming. It's very much an atmospheric piece, the accordion harmony shaping a light-hearted, almost humorous tone. Development comes in spurts, mimicking the half-awake feeling of an early morning. Assertive without being intrusive, “Rustle” is perfectly named. As the second half of the soundtrack opens, the music begins its descent into a more somber realm, beginning with the decidedly melancholy “Shadow of Sorrow.” Most of the time, an accordion means either humor or romance, but paired with the harp, the resonance is very heavy, expressing what feels like reserved happiness. Wavering between humorous and harrowing for most of the time, the piece ends on a foreboding note. I love the ambiguity.

Looking for some good, expressive string playing? Look no further than “Blight,” one of Haibane's three or four core pieces. After a short cello introduction, the viola takes center stage, driving each phrase forward while instilling a darkness that distinguishes “Blight” from typical chamber music. The chord progression that begins midway through the piece hides in the shadows for so long that the perfect fifth near the two-minute mark is a shock to the senses. Otani's manipulation of pitch is simply brilliant. Delving deeper into the heart of Haibane reveals “Wondering,” an arietta that's rather, well, contemplative. Donna Burke turns a fine vocal performance, accompanied by a harmony reminiscent of a church hymn, albeit one that discourages singing-along. From the first doleful harp chord it's easy to lose oneself in the piece's hypnotic repetition. It is a song of growth, of lost innocence, the very essence of Haibane Renmei.

The thirteenth piece on the soundtrack deconstructs Otani's improvised piano solo, playing out like a dream that takes a wrong turn. You might be tempted to blow off “Fading” as generic background music, but you'd be missing out on a unique theme variation. No “different key” or “remix” cop-outs here, just a true alternative vision of classic Haibane piano solo. “Ripples by the drop” is the more engaging piano performance, though. Here we have a true solo part, a somber piece sprinkled with discord that epitomizes Otani's ability to develop a melody. As the minute mark passes, you confront a series of active, almost percussive waves of sound, capped off by an awesome glissando. And then, it all settles again, but not before leaving us with another attack of cacophony. It's a wild ride.

I'm convinced the Haibane Renmei soundtrack is animusic's best use of the viola ever. The underexposed instrument takes a rare central role in no fewer than five of Haibane's tracks, its unbalanced acoustics a perfect tool for the music's underlying sorrow. “Someday, Lasting, Seranade” is probably the most impressive of the five. When was the last time you heard a viola/cello duet on an anime soundtrack? Pay no mind to the accordion that enters halfway through. This one's all about the lower strings. Just try not to fall in love with the rich, mellow timbres of the viola.

“Love Will Light the Way,” which borrows heavily from the jazz genre, is a major departure from Otani's Old World style, and it's not his strongest showing, but it's a welcome injection of variety. Julianne's vocals are exceptional, and Otani performs his best piano of the entire soundtrack, yet there's something missing from the song. From the second minute mark on, it's just a little too free form to keep much interest. Still, it makes for a relaxing listen. The next track, “Etheral Remains,” is another Otani experiment—and a much more successful one. Layered chorus lines evoke thoughts of Yuki Kajiura's compositions, except Otani's is even better. Everything is perfectly balanced, and the melody drifts effortlessly from instrument to instrument. The effect is intoxicating.

What better way to conclude than with the piece that started the anime series? At last, after pulling us through so many variations, the original improv piano solo arrives in its full glory. “Ailes Grises” is definitely worth the wait. Otani is absolutely brilliant at leading you into a theme or climax, and this brisk yet powerful performance showcases it all. Just when things are about to become stale, the mandolin jumps in, adding an eerie whisper to the final notes. To top it off, the melody is quite catchy, so chances are you'll be humming it long after the disc ends.

From start to finish, Kō Ōtani's Haibane Renmei soundtrack is far superior to almost all television series music, aligning itself instead with many high-quality cinema scores. This is the culmination of Otani's musical talent and experience. In Gundam Wing, he lacked the inspiration; in Outlaw Star, the performers. But this time, with the guidance of series creator Yoshitoshi ABe, he puts all the pieces together to create a musical masterpiece. On the plainest level, Haibane's a very enjoyable set of classical pieces that will evoke thoughts of Irish jigs and ballet dances. On a more involved one, it's an emotional expedition with many highs and lows along the way. Otani led me inside, then through his evolving musical world, and I'm thankful I embarked on the trip. Give Haibane Renmei a listen, and you're sure to be equally enchanted.

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