Narrow Sea; Taxidermy
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Gilbert Kalish (piano); Sō Percussion
Nonesuch 7559791789 28:22 mins
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw continues to make waves with her imaginative and expressive works that glide effortlessly between genres. This short but exquisite disc showcases Shaw’s 2017 Narrow Sea, recorded by its outstanding original performers: Sō Percussion, soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gilbert Kalish. Exploring the importance of refuge and the idea of water as a passage between this world and the next, Narrow Sea draws on texts from The Sacred Harp, a collection of American hymns first published in 1844. Shaw reworks these powerful texts with new melodies, adding fresh colour but retaining the emotional directness of the original hymns themselves. The gentle, tonal piano line (played with subtlety and grace by Kalish) is cast as a ‘grounding force or a familiar memory’ set amid an intriguing and exploratory battery of musical timbres, including ‘ceramic bowls, humming, a piano played like a dulcimer by five people at once and flowerpots’. The resulting five-movement work is at once joyful and mesmeric. Its instrumental harmonies and textures are often spare, but Shaw is unafraid to spin a tune and the paired songs that open and close the work have a wonderful lilt which Upshaw carries off with gorgeous lyricism.
The album is completed with the one-movement work Taxidermy (2012), which again makes creative use of the muted, bell-like timbre of flowerpots, combined here with hypnotic overlapping speech patterns. Performed with assurance and poise by Sō Percussion, Taxidermy offers an aptly delicate and thoughtful close to this beautiful disc.