First things first: this is a beautiful record.
The Diagenesis Duo is comprised of soprano Heather Barnes and cellist Jennifer Bewerse. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bewerse have been performing as a duo since 2011. Though I have been familiar with both excellent musicians for some time, I was not aware of this particular configuration until I was asked to review this record. Together, they are magnificent.
A duo of voice and cello, you say? Perhaps you’re thinking, “what an odd, if interesting, combination?!” Indeed, there is undeniably a surfeit of music for voice and piano, especially soprano and piano. So much so that the Los Angeles-based unSUNg concert series (a fine one, that showcases LA living composers) specifically requested compositions that were NOT for soprano and piano. While certainly fewer in number than voice/piano offerings, there are of course more than a handful of works for voice and various other instruments. But I can’t recall when, if ever, I’ve heard music for voice and cello. If there was any doubt as to the viability of such an ensemble, this record should lay them to rest.
Hands and Lips of Wind presents the music of 4 composers: Mischa Salkind-Pearl, Harrison Birtwistle, Stephen Lewis, and Adam Scott Neal.
The album is bookended by two movements of Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Wind, whence comes the album’s title. The text of these two movements are poems, in English translation, by Octavio Paz. The composer describes his piece thus:
Octavio Paz’ poems often display enormously evocative imagery contained in few words. I wanted to bring that spirit to my setting of the five poems in this piece. In particular, these poems move effortlessly between images of light and darkness, motion and stillness. These ideas are potentially very musical. My settings approach the poems as complete entities, emphasizing the prevailing affect of each poem.
The opening track, In the Lodi Gardens, is a meditation on this New Delhi garden, park, and burial place. (Paz lived in India when he was the Mexican ambassador to that country in 1962-68.) The music itself, thankfully, in my opinion, does not invoke anything Indian, per se – if anything it reminds me of Hebrew cantorial – but evokes, through Ms. Barnes’ powerful singing, an omnipotent goddess, both warning and welcoming. It is a glorious and intrepid introduction to the power, but also the emotional range of her vocal prowess.
The next work is 9 Settings of Lorine Niedecker, by the English composer Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle sets these epigrammatic poems in equally pithy, epigrammatic, at times enigmatic fashion. (Most of the nine movements are under one minute in length, with the longest timing out at two minutes and twenty-four seconds.) They are delicate, at times humorous, and rich settings quite worthy of their careful, sensitive, personal texts. Ms. Niedecker, for those unfamiliar with her work (I had never heard of her), was an American poet, who lived from 1903 until 1970. She was a member of the Objectivist poets (who are not related to the work or quasi-philosophical movement of the same name associated with Ayn Rand and other self-serving greedy bastards.) The Objectivists were influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, among others. The scale of these works can’t help but remind one of the compositions of Webern and Schoenberg, specifically, in the case of the latter, the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19. The harmonic language is, obviously, quite different. But the overall cadence, the clarity of lines, the power of both the sounds and the silences, create a similar presence and emotional impact.
Next is the three-movement Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua by Stephen Lewis. As its title (with the dead in a dead language) might suggest, it is an eerie trip to an underworld of foreboding spirits. It is not offputting, not at all, but rather invites us to tread, however carefully, along unknown paths. I can’t help but think of it as a musical equivalent of a Haunted House, where we feel a mix of excitement and fear. We know, or at least try to remind ourselves, that the danger is not real, but we can’t help but be at least a bit afraid. The three movements, Wail, Marche Funèbre, and Totentanz are of diverse character, but all showcase the precision and emotional range of the performers.
Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua is followed by Adam Scott Neal’s five-movement work, Travels. There is a time-honored tradition of various literary works portraying a character who wanders, seeks, encounters a wide range of situations and personages. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, even Partch’s Barstow, immediately come to mind.) So here, as in the work of others, we meet a traveler and his meditations on his encounters. The five movements begin with The Universe, and end with The Horizon. I particularly like the order as it resists a more cliché progression from the small to the grandiose and eternal. If anything, it is the opposite. While I suppose it could work in either direction, given the personal, modest and inward quality of much of Travels’ music, I found this order of presentation much more satisfying. A small detail, small but worthy of mention, would be the extended techniques in the third movement, The Wayfarer. These techniques are few and rather modest, just a few tongue clicks, breathy quasi-whistles and some percussive knocks on the body of the cello. Subtle though they may be, I must say, their presence is still strong and immediately felt. I’m loathe to say anything negative at all, but once I heard these sounds I realized that I could have easily taken in some more non-traditional sounds.
The last track is the final movement from the work of Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Winds, the first composition of the album. This movement is another setting of Paz, this time his Nightfall. It may be my favorite track, though with so many good works here, it’s really hard to say. This setting is an austere, surgically careful nest of transparent, delicate pitch manipulations, a slowly downward-cascading acoustic construction, with dissonances harsh yet delicious, that give vivid sonic life to the dark, evocative poetry. The piece, and the album, end as a nightfall extinguishes the light of day:
A bird falls,
The grass grows dark,
Edges blur, lime is black,
The world is less credible.
Allow me to say it again: Hands and Lips of Wind is a beautiful record. The singing and playing, are sensitive, precise and, more importantly, inspired. It is rife with poetry, in the best senses of the word, from the texts themselves to the composers’ settings of those texts, to the interpretations of Ms. Barnes’ voice and Ms. Bewerse’s gorgeous cello lines. This music demands your concentration, to be sure. But if you give it that, if you let yourself focus and then fall into the sounds that wash over you, your efforts will be wonderfully rewarded.