MicroFest Records has released The Great Hunt, a new song cycle of chamber music pieces by Alex Wand. With a first-rate ensemble that includes members of wild Up and Partch, The Great Hunt explores the many aspects of mortality and death as seen through the lens of poetry by Carl Sandburg. Nine short tracks make up this collection, described in the liner notes as music that “weaves together folk and classical influences, microtonal guitars, improvisation, and speak-singing recitation.”
Cool Tombs is based on a poem about the burial of Abraham Lincoln and begins with a mysterious solo flute line followed by sustained cello tones and counterpoint in the bassoon. The poetry is spoken against a series of darkly mystical harp passages, soon rejoined by the flute. The feeling is solemn and grave, but not frightening. More spoken text about the burials of U.S. Grant and Pocahontas amplify the theme that, great or small, we are all equal in the tomb. The perfectly woven instrumental lines produce just the right combination of uncertainty and expectation that infuses Sandburg’s text.
Grass takes up a similar theme, but from the more overwhelming perspective of large-scale death in battle. Beginning with a quick percussive hit and followed by languid guitar strumming, the text speaks of the dead piled “high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work; I am the grass, I cover all.” The spare ensemble reflects the anonymity of mass casualties in war – the graves obscured by grass so that years later the resting places are forgotten. The feeling here is decidedly tragic, especially in a stark cello solo by Derek Stein as Grass rolls to a quiet close.
An unexpectedly brighter view of death is heard in Time Sweep, beginning with strong vocals, pleasing harmonies and an upbeat tempo that starts with the text “Since death is there in the light of the sun, in the song of the wind…” Death is artfully portrayed as a new and vivid experience, neither grim nor frightening, but rather occurring as a natural experience. A somewhat slower instrumental interlude is almost mournful, but never melancholy, with long, deep tones and thick harmony. The vocals take this up, bringing a warm and comforting color to the piece as it glides slowly to the finish. Time Sweep is an extraordinary musical and poetic statement on death as the natural consequence of life.
Under the Harvest Moon returns to the more familiar territory of Halloween spookiness and the sense of foreboding on a dark autumn evening in the graveyard. “Death, the gray mocker, comes and whispers to you…” A strong percussive presence, repeating guitar riffs and some discordant tutti playing add to the sense of dread. This pivots in the second half of the piece, however, becoming more of a summer reminiscence with less jarring harmonies and a softer beat. The ensemble here is very precise, leaving just a hint of the uncertainty, even as this track arrives at a smooth finish.
Not all of the album is focused so tightly on death. Jug is an engaging tribute to the simple clay vessel used to hold so many commonplace things: cider, maple syrup, vinegar. The relationship to human mortal insignificance is perhaps metaphorical, as the poem states: “There is nothing proud about this; only one out of many…” A strong repeating cello line, cleanly sung vocals and a catchy rhythm all serve to celebrate this ordinary but useful object. New Weather is a nicely nostalgic look at the highly personal way that climate and landscape were experienced in the last century. With a lilting, waltz-like melody the text seems to be a throwback to a time when we paid more attention to our surroundings. Passersby has a wonderfully breezy flute obbligato by Christine Tavolacci that floats above a determined vocal line, and this manages to impart just a hint of pop sentiment. The Great Cool Calm is even more nostalgically whimsical, with some lovely vocal harmonies and an excellent tutti ensemble section.
The Great Hunt, the title track, begins with a repeating guitar riff soon joined by the vocals of Alex Wand. The singing of Jackson Browne flashes briefly to mind here, but the exquisite harmony of Laura Jean Anderson along with sustained cello and flute lines clothe the pop sensibility with a dignity equal to the text. This piece is just two minutes long but manages to be both beautiful and captivating. The entire album, for that matter, has been carefully crafted around the touching Sandburg texts with just the right balance of the simple and the formal – all superbly performed.
The Great Hunt is available for high resolution download at prostudiomasters.com/album/page/15460.
Desert Magic is an LA-based collective comprised of the talents of Alex Wand, Steven Van Betten and Logan Hone, all alumni of Cal Arts. With backgrounds in composition, folk, jazz, songwriting, and world music, they manage to succeed in creating genre-bending sound world that honors not only their musical pedigrees, but also our human histories as well.
A Round the Sun consists of a collection of songs and rounds that were have been “released piecemeal” on the equinoxes and solstices of this year. The album coalesces upon a shared middle ground that is earthy, wholesome and honest: a world that can be difficult to inhabit while also maintaining experimentalism and a sense of the mystic. From inclusion of samples from NASA’s sound archive to the weightless quality of the trios voices, the album doesn’t try to hide the joy and haunting beauty with which it appreciates our time on earth, and the passing thereof.
With such a large set of rounds, there is always the chance of a form getting stale, but A Round the Sun plays with formal elements, tonalities and instrumentation plenty enough that the old counterpoint feels new and interesting each time it is presented. The most power parts of the album are the points when the processes used to create the pieces are dished out to us the listener. On Venus Takes Jupiter, a round is introduced with text that wanders from a more whimsical metaphoric take on the orbits of the titular planets to a mathematical/musical explanation of the phasing loops that follow.
While the core instrumentation could seem folk-ish or even poppy, usually hovers about guitar based groves with floating vocal lines above, guitar preparations, an expansive array of guitars, and Logan Hone’s multi-instrumentalism throw in new timbral (and at times tuning system) choices just before the color pallet gets stale. What I can only assume is Erhu on The Other String Theory and a carefully tasteful sax solo in the middle of Commonly Observed Phenomenon expand complement the loops that permeate the album.
While this exact brand of zodiac contrapuntal songwriting seems like it might have a hard time finding a home in a concert hall or a club, the grey-area-ness of its classification will lead to a rewarding listen for anyone who is looking for an album that exists in the cracks of classification, and will pay off with melody lines that can circle through one’s head for days after listening, begging to be rewound and re-listened and timbres and layers that are supremely joyful and poignant and at times absolutely laid bare in their sincerity.
Listen to The U and I off of A Round the Sun below: