Spirit Journies

Spirit JourniesThe five pieces on Barry Truax’s most recent CD are all from this century, 2001 through 2006. Given the similarity of dates and the thematic unity suggested by the album title, one might unwarily conclude that these five are similarly similar. They’re not. If I wanted to give someone a fair idea of Truax’s range, I could do much worse than simply hand over this CD.

This disc opens with Steam from 2001. And that’s the first sound you hear, that of a steam whistle. Too soon an alto flute enters (played beautifully by Chenoa Anderson). Too soon for me, anyway, not wanting anything to interfere with the lovely harshness of the steam whistles and foghorns. But the prettiness of the flute doesn’t really detract from the beauties of the other sounds, even though the flute part is full of (gasp!) melodies. The flute part also has some very delicious pitch bending, too, so it all turns out well in the end. This is, in spite of being pretty, a most engaging piece. I must have listened to it a half dozen times before starting this review (as is my wont), and I can only say it gets better and better once the initial shock has worn off!

Temple, from 2002, is made up of choral voices in the San Bartolomeo cathedral in Busetto, Italy–but the music has no European, cathedral, Christian sound to it. If not universal, then I suppose vaguely Asian. The piece has a lovely, strange quality to it, geography aside, perhaps because what’s emphasized are the reverberations the voices set off inside the cathedral rather than the voices themselves. (If “voices themselves” really makes any sense in this context. I’m not at all sure that it does.)

In any event, Temple is a quite spacious sounding piece, even in the stereo version on CD; it can make even a small apartment seem sonically enormous.

An actor saying lines from Shakespeare over “island sounds,” waves soughing on the hard shore, birds calling, bells tolling, footsteps crunching through dry leaves–sounds simple enough, but Prospero’s Voyage is an intricate and powerful piece, quite satisfyingly complex. I suppose a piece of simply island sounds would be that, come to think of it. After some wave soughing, the actor says some lines from the final speech of Prospero, bits of which occur throughout the piece, until he switches to lines from Macbeth, that is. After “let your indulgence set me free” has been spoken several times, it’s shortened to “set me free,” whereupon the word “free” is electronically lengthened. At the word “idiot” from Macbeth, there is so much distortion that were the line not so well known, the word would be very difficult to make out. Quite theatrical for an unstaged, concert piece.

And there is one other thing, also simple seeming, but also enormously effective. After the last “set me free,” the actor intones the words “art  to enchant, spirits to enforce” (yes, the order is flipped from that in the play) over and over again over those footsteps crunching through dried leaves. It’s as if he’s saying an incantation as he walks over his island.

The Shaman Ascending starts with a pulsing figure that gradually speeds up to sound like a swiftly spinning rotor. There’s a brief moment of relaxation–no pulsation–and then the figure returns but now syncopated enough so it no longer sounds like an engine. After one more brief moment of relaxation, the pulsing is back again, regular again.

Though the eight soundtracks come to us only in stereo, they are so cunningly presented as to seem as if they’re swirling all around you in the room. A stunning effect. A stunning piece.

Spirit Journies ends with the piece The Way of the Spirit for ichigenkin, shakuhachi and eight soundtracks. And the essential contrast of The Way of the Spirit, on the soundtracks as well, is that between the hard-edged sounds of the ichigenkin and the soft, smooth sounds of the shakuhachi. Randy Raine-Reusch not only performs these two instruments beautifully but is credited as co-composer of this piece.

The clip is from Prospero’s Voyage.

Other clips are available on Truax’s website.

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