Each piece on Bilal Nasser’s Where the Orange Groves Grow is steeped in memories and meditations.
Where the Orange Groves Grow reminds me of illustrations created using a spirograph. Bilal Nasser’s arcs of classical guitar notes are intricate and hypnotic. While spirograph drawings can often look tangled, Nasser’s swirling and beautiful melodies never feel rushed, nor is any piece particularly chaotic because he pauses briefly before choosing a note or melodious route to go down.
“Departures” has some of the best examples of these thoughtfully designed arcs: around the three-minute mark, Nasser’s picking turns slow, and a little timid, and you feel like you’re at the top of an enormous hill, surveying the world below you. But then Nasser picks up the pace and unleashes bundles of notes, and suddenly you’re rolling down the hill. “Every Day is Exactly the Same” is the briefest track – a small detail that I love because it reminds me of all the short conversations that I’ve had with friends over the last two years. (We have nothing new to say to each other because nothing new happens when every day is exactly the same!!) But in just over a minute, Nasser twists from sounding playful to anxious, matching the tenor of the days when you start off feeling hopeful but are quickly overcome with exhaustion.
As Nasser writes on Bandcamp, Where the Orange Groves Grow began with “Exiles and Orange Groves,” a piece originally written for an (eventually cancelled) graduation recital and is a reflection on middle eastern exile narratives and oral history. During lockdowns, Nasser wrote the rest of the album and each piece is steeped in memories and meditations. When writing about his work, Nasser uses quotes around “classical” and “classical musician,” acknowledging the constraints of the labels. About Where the Orange Groves Grow, he writes: “These pieces represent my dialectical breaking point from being a “classical musician”, performing mostly 20th-century repertoire, to a musician wanting to take what I had learned and create something original and personal…” If you have any assumptions about what classical guitar compositions sound like, Nasser will upend them.
Nasser draws inspiration from hardcore, emo, drone, and post-rock music, and these elements never feel out of place on Where The Orange Groves Grow. Around the 5:30 mark of “Tremors (Intifada),” screams rip through static, and the album’s finale, “In Between,” includes a spoken word poem and Nasser quietly singing atop of increasingly agitated guitar picking. At one point in the poem, you hear two disparate Nassers – one speaks measuredly and the other yells into what sounds like a megaphone – say, “A tug of war between who I am and who I want to be. I tremble at what’s in front of me, why don’t you?” It’s a weighty question, offering listeners valuable insight into Nasser’s compositional headspace, and adds even more dimensions to his dazzlingly complex pieces.