Leah Asher’s new album Retreat Into Afters (Scripts Records) was created at the end of a three-year stay in northern Norway and explores the feelings and intimate moments Asher experienced there. The compositions use violin and viola improvisations that explore the sonic possibilities of the instruments without any electronic manipulation. This avoidance of electronic effects forms the basis for the album and reminds the listener how many sonic possibilities acoustic instruments still have to offer.
The title track “Retreat Into Afters” is a great introduction to the musical language Asher uses throughout the album. Fairly quickly, different sounds start to layer on top of one another. Some seem to fade in and out of one another, while others play in stark contrast to the layers that came before. The way in which Asher plays with the density of this sonic universe almost pulls and pushes the listener around, making for a fun ride.
In contrast, “Naked” uses drones and simple ostinato figures in a minimal way. Changes happen slowly, and the music never gets overly thick or complex. Very suddenly, the middle section introduces short, rapid figures breaking away from the long, steadiness that was previously established. The fast pizzicato layers are frenetic, but somehow don’t upset the mood of the track as it easily transitions back to the long, drone-like sounds from the beginning.
Similarly, “June 2016” plays with the conflict of fast, punctuated sounds against long sustained ones. What starts out like distant bird chirps morphs into something aggressive and almost violent before suddenly pulling back. This idea of subdued layers being overcome by harsher ones permeates the piece and makes for some pleasantly jarring moments. As the intensity rises and falls, the short musical figures slowly become longer and less separated from each other until they finally morph into drones and tremolos, yet still at odds with each other.
The intensity of “Chapter 5” captures the uneasiness of a thriller. Asher does this with dynamic surprises and unique eerie effects throughout the work. The following track “This Day” takes the listener to a different world entirely. The sound of a sitar seems to emerge as long, drawn-out tones ebb and flow over each other like an ocean current. As this section pulls away, the next seems to stutter in timidly. Eventually, the music returns to the material from the beginning, but with shrill harmonics creating a more conflicted feeling. Asher’s ability to craft unique sonic worlds becomes clearly evident in these two tracks alone.
The final track, “November 2015” is reminiscent of Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question as it is a piece at odds with itself. There is a slow build of sound, but the layers that emerge are rough and tormented, similar to “Chapter 5.” Soon, a quiet and beautiful chord progression begins to establish itself in the background, repeating and never changing. The sounds that began the piece are relentless though and never give up the foreground. The experience is as conflicting as it is joyful and uneasy at the same time.
Overall, Retreat Into Afters is an incredible experience. Leah Asher’s ability to find new and challenging sounds alongside her use of contrast and conflict within her sonic world speak to the high level of her compositional craft. The way in which she uses sonic space is equally part of the experience, so good speakers or headphones are highly recommended.