Deniz Cuylan – No Such Thing As Free Will (Review)

Turkish-born, LA-based musician Deniz Cuylan conjures imagistic sounds that combine abstract notions of the sublime with highly resonant emotional affects. His career has seen him work across various genres and setups, scoring for film and television series and even composing ad-spots for multinational corporations. But on his newest solo project, No Such Thing As Free Will, Cuylan limits himself to a nylon string guitar and a few backing accompaniments, creating an immersive listening experience that envelops our ears and invites our minds, however briefly, towards soothing escape.

Cuylan creates musical patterns reminiscent of the work of Steve Reich, which he introduces, embellishes, and then leaves to one side with effortless aplomb. His compositions feel anything but linear, each track a maze where new ideas emerge unexpected around every corner. Opener ‘Clearing’ sets an introductory tone; the brush of the nylon strings and light pianos are like shaky sunbeams cascading over still leaves, conjuring a peaceful scene where tranquillity reigns, easing the listener into a space of blissful solitude and introspection. ‘Purple Plains of Utopia’, meanwhile, urges us down more adventurous paths. Syncopated chords are plucked with a commanding force, echoed in the swelling cellos which surge forth like ghostly muses urging us to venture deeper into the unknown. New melodies wink from all sides, tempting us further into the labyrinth, promising nothing less than excitement, novelty, and the taste of our every curiosity satisfied.

Loss and heartbreak trickle through the sumptuous harmonic melodies of ‘She Was Always Here’ like droplets of clear water, the repeating central motif like a mind returning endlessly to the memory of some lost beloved. But despondency is ultimately refused; a stubborn bliss pours through the twinkling patterns that emerge halfway through, a recognition of beauty in absence, delight – free from the possessiveness of the ego – forged from the simple fact of love having once prevailed. The tone convinces us that joy can exist in recollection, that we can yet touch the sublime, if not in the material, then at least in the ghosts of those who walk with us, their faces rising forth, smiling, whenever we close our eyes.

‘Flaneurs in Hakone’ lulls the listener deeper still under Cuylan’s spell. Arpeggios pirouette beneath brushed chords like whirling dervishes, while melodies drift in and out of the frame like animals venturing out from the shadows to watch in curiosity. Notes crash together and unravel like kaleidoscopic colours or ribbons in the hands of rhythmic dancers, sounding a mirage of endless possibilities and promises, generating within the listener a state of untampered, childlike bliss. ‘Object of Desire’ leads our ears down mistier pathways, the lulling arpeggios pushing forth beneath rolling clouds of drone, testing the mysterious limits of the known, adrift and forever searching. The motif repeats ad infinitum, treading round circular trails until the ideas simply fall away, a search without resolution, the journey our only conceivable destination.

And then we end on the titular ‘No Such Thing As Free Will’, where dusty pianos and foggy strings drift ominously across murmuring strums from the guitar. In the crisp recording the instrument betrays its materiality, bright with the texture of the strings and creaking body of wood. A sliding hand against the neck reminds us that this is not the disembodied, ethereal soundtrack to some spiritual, uninhabited realm. It is the work of a human being – subtly imperfect and all the more delightful for it. The intrusion of the guitar’s creak echoes the harsh truism of the track’s title, reminding us of the stubborn complexities and fatalities implicit within all existence. The percussive slaps that usher the music away bring us rudely back to humble reality. Cuylan abandons us where we began, encountering, for good or for ill, nothing more or less urgent than our own selves.

No Such Thing As Free Will is a gorgeous testament to the emotional mastery Deniz Cuylan holds over his instrument. Listen to it, allow your mind to be led down labyrinthine trails, and open your heart to the panorama of wonder that awaits you on its every twist and turn.

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