New Focus Recordings FCR 118
There’s something uniquely satisfying about encountering music that doesn’t sound quite like anything one has heard before. This was my experience of Shark in You, a new CD from composer Du Yun. A rising star in the contemporary classical scene – she is a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and one of three composers on Boosey & Hawkes’s inaugural Emerging Composers roster – Du Yun has released a non-classical debut that matches the idiosyncratic, compelling strangeness of her concert music.
The infectious beats and breathy vocals of the first few tracks of Shark in You initially call to mind Björk. But as the album unfolds – and it is very much an album, best experienced as a whole – new dimensions continually emerge. The vocal and instrumental inflections seem to migrate imperceptibly from Asia to the Middle East. There are visceral cabaret numbers, songs that sound like Kurt Weill ballads reimagined for the twenty-first century, with Tom Waits and Jeff Buckley lurking in the wings. The disc culminates, surprisingly and effectively, in an effervescent remake of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”
While Du Yun’s sonic imagination and evocative vocals are at the heart of Shark in You, the album represents a collaborative effort among a collection of stellar musicians: Cody Brown (drums), Peter Evans (trumpet), Gareth Flowers (trumpet), Peter Hanson (kazoo/accordion), Matt Haimovitz (cello), Andy Hunter (trombone), Brad Henkel (trumpet), Daniel Lippel (guitar), E.J. Parker (bass), Erik Spangler (beats, theremin, turntable), Chris Trzcinski (drums), J.Q. Whitcomb (trumpet), and ZIYA (tabla/percussion). Spangler co-wrote four tracks with Du Yun, while Flowers and Haimovitz each co-wrote one.
The resonance between Du Yun and Björk ultimately has more to do with sensibility than sound. Their art doesn’t render genre irrelevant so much as it revels in transcending it. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has written that Björk’s work is “free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music. The creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again.” Shark In You reveals a similar fearlessness, a willingness to venture across stylistic boundaries in pursuit of a singular musical vision.