Here are some reviews-
Sound Choice, Spring 1986:
This is the score for a multimedia dance performance. Etnier plays synthesizer and piano, plus occasional marimba, guitar, percussion and birdcalls. Others contribute drums, bass guitar, electric guitar and trumpet. There's also a little girl reciting Darwin and a boy's choir. This eclectic music calls to mind Eno (in the ambient synthesizer sections), David Bedford (in the recitation and choral sections), and ECM-style jazz (in the ensemble sections)- and that's only a partial list. It is remarkable how well Etnier makes it all work. The two parts of the piece flow smoothly, despite the stylistic diversity; ideas are fully developed, and the transitions are natural. The quality of the music is matched by the first-rate recording, pressing and packaging.
OP Magazine "Z" issue, 11/84:
I don't think the original multi-media piece this is a condensation of is available on video yet, so you may have to do your own choreography, but as I know from firsthand experience it's a swell record to prance around to (I didn't try the rope-swinging and climbing pictured on the cover). Lusciously produced, this work for electronics, percussives, narration (some little girl reading Darwin, which detracts somewhat), & boy's choir is quite varied (too varied for new age audiences, perhaps) and interesting, at least for those involved in multi-media pieces integrating modern dance.
Sweet Potato, 12/5/84:
I did not see the dance for which this work was originally commissioned, so I can't supplement the music with memory. I can only take the album at face value, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, this was not intended to stand alone. It was created expressly for a multi-media production that was held at the Portland Performing Arts Center. The sounds on the LP, though, are a distillation of the complete score, intended for purchase as a discrete whole.
What Etnier has created is an ethereal collage. As on The Demo, his first album, he uses sounds for their intrinsic value. The one long piece comprising both sides of the record contains few melodies or rhythms, the usual building blocks of popular music. Instead, Arterial relies on conceptual progressions: quiet to exuberant, thin to full, simple to dense. It is too sophisticated to be dismissed as background music. The discriminating palate will come to savor this as a welcome respite from the mundane. It is neither a difficult or condescending work: the instrumentation is standard, and you don't have to endure incongruous and irritating computer games. You will have to leave your preconceptions behind, though.
I'm beginning to suspect that Maine is too small to hold John Etnier much longer. When the Twyla Tharp Dance Troupe commissions a piece, the artist gets national attention and the score comes out on a major record label. David Van Tiegham's These Things Happen, released earlier this year on Sire Records, follows many of the same principles as Etnier's work. Arterial, allowing for a smaller budget, is nearly as good. It does suffer to a certain extent from "kitchen sink-itis," the urge to include everything whether it fits or not. (I don't understand the young boy's narration, for example.) John Etnier's talent is obvious, though, and it's just a matter of time before an established act lures him away.
Sweet Potato, 6/6/84
(Excerpted from a longer review of the stage performance of Arterial):
As magical as Mayer's set is Etnier's music. With noteworthy assistance from Joe Wainer and Dave Hill, the score keeps perfect pace with the concept. The music flows, grows, gyrates and elevates. It has great depth of feel and range of style, yet it remains inherently organic.
"So much of what I've done for Ram Island (Arterial is his fourth score for the troupe) sounded like it came out a loft in New York somewhere," Etnier says. "For Arterial we needed more natural and pleasurable forms." Some of these forms included birdcalls, the Boy Singers of Maine and a child narrator.
"I knew that I really wanted to work with boy singers- it's a particular voice characteristic unlike any other." Etnier says. Once the Boy Singers of Maine agreed to join the project, a child (Elke Harrison) was chosen to narrate because, he says, "by then children's voices had become a theme."
Another more technically procured theme was the "quasi-oceanic wind-type sound that became the contextual backbone of much of the Arterial score.