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I sing the body electric

When asked about electric guitars, Andrés Segovia, the 20th century’s greatest classical guitarist, famously called them an abomination: “Whoever heard of an electric violin?” he went on to say. “An electric cello? Or for that matter an electric singer?” Although technologies have, of course, rendered much of this speculation obsolete, we cannot dismiss Segovia, for his legacy lies at the heart of this project, spun so pellucidly from the very medium he rejected. Such considerations are far from lost on the Orpheus Guitar Duo, who, having both studied with Phillip de Fremery, a Segovia pupil and a true curator of his legacy, consciously plant their sonic activities in the same fertile soil. Not only are they turning music they love into a vibrant, nascent art, but more importantly they bring a distinctly Segovian touch to the introspection of their tone and depth of melodic line. When Segovia began his lifelong interest in transcription, the guitar was not considered worthy of the role. Here we find ourselves at a similar turning point: the electric guitar as a legitimate mouthpiece for translating preexisting works into a wholly new language. Yet even beyond the technical are those less effable aspects of the music itself, and of the inspiration that keeps those aspects aflame. Where Segovia actualized that inspiration through the magic of his articulation, Orpheus Guitar Duo find it also through their articulation of magic. We hear this in the program they have assembled, and in the sensitivity and focus with which they play it. In so doing, they enliven the lesser heard. They are, I daresay, Segovia’s elusive electric singer incarnate.


If this album were a face, then John Cage’s In a landscape (1948) would be its awakening eyes. The music is rudimentary, largely linear, and barely brushes at the façade of a life lived in humility to that which it created. It is also achingly beautiful, and indeed a window into the soul of what follows. Often billed as Cage’s most accessible work, In a landscape was composed at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he was presenting a festival dedicated to Erik Satie, whom he enthusiastically admired and whose unassuming profundity informs every facet of this jewel of piano literature—a world, as Cage himself asserted in a public defense of the Frenchman he never met, of which durations of sound and silence were alpha and omega. Beyond these, structure could only thrive in a widening sense of freedom.


Such expansiveness abounds in the cycle, Quiet Songs, by Valentin Silvestrov of the Ukraine. Originally scored for piano and a baritone who must strip his voice naked by singing sotto voce, here that voice is less fragile, retouched by the light of a freshly imagined framework. Having chosen a representative trio (“Song Can Tend the Ailing Spirit,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and “Farewell, O World, O Earth”), our duo inhales the poetry therein and exhales pure feeling, thereby achieving the singularity of mind that the originals sought to affect. Silvestrov’s mode of choice is the postlude, a fading afterthought which one finds even more apparent as the texts now recede in favor of amplified wire. Somewhere in that disembodiment, a novel vocabulary is achieved, one where words cease to matter while their acousmatic effects remain.


All of which brings us back to Satie. A composer about whom quietude might also illustrate as much as a volume’s worth of words, he was a maverick and purveyor of the popular and beyond. His three Gymnopédies (1888) are a prime example of the eccentric blood that ran through his veins. In each, modal harmonies cradle delicate motifs on their journey toward endings all the more resonant for being premature. The title is a characteristic one, likely coined to evoke a ceremonial dance of Greek antiquity, as is that of the Three Gnossiennes (1890-93), another Satiean neologism, which hones the musical idiom introduced by the Gymnopédies.


At first cochlear glance, the sound world of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt whispers “introspective,” as if internal reflection were its primary goal. Yet in building a relationship with his music, one becomes keenly aware of the mutuality, if not the multifariousness, of his task, so that ultimately the proverbial look inward ceases to be possible without first stepping outside of oneself. This leaves one vacillating somewhere liminal, in that space between one’s hand on a mirror and its reflection. This is Pärt’s purview, and is where we may quietly reckon with the deeper questions suspended within it. The algebraic flow of Fratres (1980) and molasses drip of Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) represent two seminal strands in his compositional development. Even, if not especially, through the wash of the current arrangement, Pärt’s signature tintinnabuli style—in which harmonic intervals are numerically arranged in stepwise, resonant chains—scintillates with tremulous clarity. Melodic lines wrap themselves around a triadic core, from which issues a life-affirming Aum. Prior to the release of the recording, Arvo Pärt himself heard the Duo’s arrangement of Spiegel im Spiegel, for which he graciously offered some precious and subtly brilliant suggestions that were incorporated into the final mix.


Catalan recluse Federico Mompou—who, unlike Cage, did meet Satie in his lifetime—also cultivated a love for pauses and reflections. The Música Callada, written between 1959 and 1967, was to be his magnum opus. The seeming contradiction of its title (often translated as “Silent Music” at the peril of no less important nuances) is also its most accurate description, based as it is on the “Song between the Soul and the Beloved” by sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross. The poem allegorizes humanity’s relationship with the transcendental word and its tangible effects, and one might say the music treads the same mystic path. In Mompou’s own words, “This music is silent because it is heard in one’s inner self. Restraint and discretion. The emotion remains hidden, and the sounds only take shape when they find echoes in the bareness of our solitude.” The Mompou connection is another personal one for Orpheus Guitar Duo, for Phillip de Fremery once played for the composer during a Segovia master class at the Santiago de Compostela in Spain. With the strings thus wound, once perched over an abyss and now electrified, the red thread continues in these songs, each a voice unraveling in time.


Tyran Grillo

Winter 2012

"For Joe Ricker and Jamie Balmer, two of a crop of young, classically trained guitarists who are finding new means of expression through finely honed technique, I sing the body electric is a milestone record that encompasses their pedigree and their passion in a completely original and captivating way."

    -Elias Blumm, I Care If You Listen

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