The first release exclusively devoted to the music of Suzanne Farrin can be described as a quasi-autobiographical sonic self-portrait refracted through the sonnets of Petrarch. According to the composer’s programme notes, the poems are “projected through the lens of individual instruments,” and set as “songs without words.” Petrarch “became the source of everything… my muse,” unlocking a “dramatic impulse,” as Farrin says in a video interview for the Columbia Italian Academy, where the project was premiered. The series of short to medium-length works on the album combines into a collection of instrumental solos and one duo, recorded by an all-start cast of capable soloists. All but the last piece make direct references to Petrarch’s sonnets by quoting excerpts in their titles.
“Polvere et Ombra” (Dust and Shadows) is a sparkling improvisatory etude of colorful arpeggios, spiky chords and contrasting shadowy whispers, played with brilliance by harpist Nuiko Wadden.
“Corpo di Terra” (Flesh of the Earth) emerges from nothing and crescendos to screaming distortion like a burning express train, circling around central pitches in a series of broad gestures alternating with contemplative harmonics and silences. The language here is highly evocative and visceral. Cellist Julia Lichten creates a compelling atmosphere that draws the listener into each utterance, encouraging exploration of the inner life of sound as it disintegrates into silence.
“Uscrimi de Braccia” (Leave my Arms) features violist Antoine Tamestit and pianist Markus Hadulla in a bitter melodic lament. We can almost feel the declamation of poetic stanzas, punctuated by intakes of breath. The development in this work is less rhythmically varied, looping around the repeated tremolando gesture in both instruments. The potential of the piano remains somewhat under-explored, allocating a mostly accompanying role to the second musician. However, the very end of the piece presents an unexpected surprise – a dark and aggressive incantation of Mathäus von Collin’s text set by Schubert in Nacht und Träume.
“Ma Dentro Dove” (But Inside Where) has clarinettist Josh Rubin play with resonance and aural illusions in a thoughtful monologue. The clarinet is augmented and shadowed by a cloak of sound from a resonating piano, which is fed the sound of the clarinet through loudspeakers while the dampers are permanently released. Different timbres and registers activate an array of resonances with striking and inventive results. Rubin showcases the full range of possibilities of his instrument, culminating in a breathless bird-like cadenza.
The concluding “Time is a Cage” is a meditative and gradual exploration of gestures and timbres. We recognise stylistic similarities here with string writing from the other pieces on the album: tremolandi, timbral gradations, double stops of melodic fragments with held pedal notes, and extended harmonics. Violinist Calvin Wiersma is particularly effective with the dynamic contrasts and softer shades demanded in this work.
Are these settings songs of unrequited love and the frailty of life and matter? If so, instead of fatalistic pessimism, we are left with a sense of warmth and optimism glowing at the core of each work, something that endures. Farrin shows compelling virtuosity in her writing for soloists, creating intimate, fragile and exposed situations. One feels that hardly anything is superfluous here, with every utterance finely chiselled. Farrin states that composing is an “unmasking” process for her, “taking away until a more essential place is revealed.” The resulting works are indeed stripped of unnecessary layers until we are left with distilled essence of a personal truth – a rare skill for an artist. One can only hope that Farrin continues to explore and expand her palette, venturing into writing for more varied instrumental forces and projecting her language onto a larger canvas.
Suzanne Farrin, Corpo di Terra (New Focus Recordings FCR119, November 2012) | Buy on Amazon
Xenia Pestova is a pianist living and working in the wilderness of North Wales.