Timeout Chicago Five Start Album Review: Corpo di Terra, Doyle Armbrust
“Petrarch’s Poetry Guides a Composer’s Seductive Debut”
Each selection on Corpo di Terra seeks to be a “song without words,” which may be why composer Suzanne Farrin’s music feels so familiar. Structured around texts of the Italian poet Petrarch, with the exception of “Time Is a Cage,” these solos and duets play like field recordings from inside the cerebral cortex.
“Polvere et Ombra” uncorks the record with fleet glissandi from harp virtuoso Nuiko Wadden, giving the impression of words being shaken loose from an ancient encyclopedia. The title track, which follows, is most representative of the seductive harmonic language put to use by Farrin. Irascible scratches and dissonances diffuse into the solace of consonant, fluttering harmonics, like the first calm inhalation after a scream.
Corpo di Terra’s sterling musicianship comes to a head with Antoine Tamestit (viola) on “Uscirmi di Braccia” and Joshua Rubin (clarinet) for “Ma Dentro Dove.” Tamestit trounces the tetrachords scrubbing across the strings, while Rubin redirects his instrument into an unplayed piano, the strings of which resonate sympathetically in response. “Time Is a Cage” pulls the listener out of a linear reality with violin soloist Cal Wiersma bending pitches, and the brain.
Offsetting these dreamily consonant fantasies was an appealingly tart harp solo, Suzanne Farrin’s “Polvere et Ombra” (2008), in which the juxtaposition of glissandos and brisk strumming effects created a richly tactile texture.
- Allan Kozinn, The New York Times
In this beguiling score, she explores musical memory, not just in musicians but in their instruments. Her idea is that the instruments retain memories of what they have played. The resulting piece sounded as if the string quartet were trying to play some organic work full of slides and groans, but fragments that didn't belong--soaring lyrical lines, crusty atonal chords, repetitive figures that could be remnants of a Baroque concerto gross--kept intruding."
-Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
If you can imagine the dense, perfumed chords of Olivier Messiaen’s piano music combined with the clangorous, insistent, near-pictorial tone-clusters of Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’, you will have some idea of what Farrin’s work sounds like. Yet it transcends its derivations to leave a distinct impression of its own.
-Tim Page, The Washington Post
Costanzo sang reverentially for Suzanne Farrin’s quietly intriguing “Si come” from la dolce morte, a monodrama based on love letters of Michelangelo. With its reverential, cantorial inflections, the short yet compelling piece seemed simultaneously ancient and modern.
-Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News
Ms. Farrin’s “l`étoile mange” (“The Star Eats”) is inspired by a poem by Antonin Artaud with the pungent imagery of the words telescoped into a short orchestral work that hums with dark energy.
- Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times
I Care if You Listen
“Suzanne Farrin: Corpo di Terra on New Focus Recordings”, Xenia Pestova
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’s equally gripping Infinite Here was brooding and more ambient but maintained the dark mood, slowly and methodically building tension and apprehension. In this piece, here is limbo, next door to hell.
- Lucid Culture
Suzanne Farrin’s Infinite Here, also a shorter work, created a tense conflict––between gorgeous ambience in color and volume, surges of dark harmony, and the constantly shifting orchestration––to great expressive effect.
- Jeremy Howard Beck, I Care if You Listen
“Suzanne Farrin’s This is the Story She Began, that title inspired by Ovid, has a fantasy-like construction, with a harmonic sensibility that suggests Messiaen. It is music of conviction, power and no little beauty.”
- Peter Burwasser, Fanfare Magazine
“…highly atmospheric and evocative colouring...”
- International Piano Magazine
“I sensed that this was music that has an integrity of its own. It was ethereal and evocative, possessed of an aural shimmer. Ms. Farrin has created a different kind of mallet for the vibraphone, which, when rubbed along the bars, elicited from it an otherworldly wash of sound.”
- Southampton Press
The searching, expressive language of the music chimed with her program note, that describes the piece as an exploration of how musical memory—in the ears and the muscles—can intrude on everyday thinking.
-George Grella, New York Classical Review
“Suzanne Farrin enters in with Tiny Spaces for string quartet in a concise, timbrally refined and traditionally musical language, from which a subtle tone-color harmony idiomatically comes into being under microtonal shadings.”