MicroFest Records has released Rider of Darkness, Path of Light, a new CD by composer Jeffrey Holmes that offers a potent brew of the Old Norse filled with “…primitive myths, transcendent legends, and dramatic elemental landscapes in their primal and violent natural states.” All of this is expressed in “post-spectral, teleological music incorporating elements of mysticism and lyrical expression.” The four pieces on this album are performed by a number of leading Los Angeles area and East Coast musicians along with solo vocalists Nicholas Isherwood and Kirsten Ashley Wiest.

The first track is Urðarmána [Moon of Fate] (2012), as performed by pianist Mark Robson and bass baritone Nicholas Isherwood. The text is in Old Norse, partly written by the composer and partly drawn from historical Eddic poetry. The liner notes helpfully include a full English translation. Urðarmána opens with high, sharp runs of piano notes, all brittle and shattered, falling like shards of broken glass. The bass entrance is deep and profound, full of operatic power and presence, darkly intoning the Norse text: “It was a moon of fate. Amidst both wind and rain…” The piano line weaves in and out, building tension in a series of wandering phrases. Isherwood’s voice often reaches down to a very low register, always with masterful assurance and expression.

As the piece proceeds, the piano accompanies with deep chords and skittering runs, adding to the sense of menace. The steady voice holds everything is balance even as the text tells of prophecy, stormy weather, impending sacrifice and great sadness. At the finish, the bass reverently intones “I will not blaspheme the gods…as you saved me from near death.” Isherwood’s singing in Norse is perfectly convincing and artfully precise as is the piano accompaniment of Mark Robson. The independence of the piano line and the vocals is manifestly apparent, yet they compliment each other perfectly. Urðarmána [Moon of Fate] is exquisitely expressive and a highly evocative portrait of the spiritual state of our Norse cousins from over a thousand years past.

Track 2, Hagall (Haglaz) [Hail] (2015) follows, performed by the Talea Ensemble conducted by David Fulmer. Hail is a common feature of Nordic weather, especially during the late autumn, and signifies the transformation to winter. Inspired by Old Norse runic symbols for the seasons, Hagall unfolds in three contiguous sections representing the nuances of hail, sleet and snowy weather. The liner notes state that the Talea Ensemble evokes “…several references to ‘primordial’ instruments, including: the contra-bass clarinet imitating a Nordic lure, the French and English horns imitating primitive cow horns, non-pitched percussion instruments (such as skinned drums, metal objects, and clay pottery), various ‘non-octave’ scales and complex compound-rhythms, and a variety of microtonalities including several uses of the overtone series.”

Hagall opens with a series of frenzied pizzicato notes in the upper strings, sustained bass tones, rapid percussion and a flurry of woodwinds that create the sense of swirling instability as experienced in the center of a hail storm. The instruments all seem to be going in different directions, but the overall sound is a convincing and cohesive representation of a violent hail and snow shower. A short, sustained tutti section provides an interlude, giving sense of a settled, sustained snowfall. Soon, however, dramatic runs of individual instruments are heard simultaneously, and this, along with some high-pitched dissonance in the woodwinds, intensifies the sense that the weather is again closing in. Strong drum beats and assorted percussion begin a new section that seems to gather strength as the woodwinds and strings re-enter with sharp, stinging sounds, like the blast of ice crystals in a strong wind. More drama follows, alternating between chaos and structure, with the orchestration perfectly capturing the sense of a heavy snow storm in full fury. As the storm abates, a lovely violin solo is heard, as if commenting on the changed landscape under newly fallen snow. The playing of the Talea Ensemble is sure-footed throughout, even in the most tumultuous passages. Hagall is an impressive piece of music that puts the listener right in the heart of an arctic storm.

Track three is Thund [Thundering Waters] (2018), a work for solo piano performed by Jason Hardink. Thund consists of three movements played in succession on the same track, and offers three perspectives on the natural state of water. The first of these, “Vantaskuggsjá [Water-Mirror]” opens with soft, high piano notes interspersed with short silences. This is water at rest, but the piano line quickly accelerates into a series of flowing passages and trills that suggest a gentle stream or tumbling brook. This circles back to a calm surface but with a tension in the run of notes that suggests impending agitation.

As more notes are heard we cross into the second movement, “Hangafoss [Hanging Waterfall].” This has more activity in the higher registers that evoke a sense splashing combined with a downward falling, as ribbons of notes descend with increasing velocity. A churning gradually builds in all the piano registers and this resolves into the final movement, “Élivágar [Icy Waves, Primordial Sea].” Loud, complex sounds increase in density and the roiling texture evokes a wild, icy sea that only subsides at the finish. These movements are not clearly delineated but each consists of alternating stretches of tranquility and energy, much as water behaves in nature. The music constantly shifts and changes, never quite settling into a broad structure. The playing by Jason Hardink is fluid and controlled, moving easily between serenity and drama. Thund is a lively exploration of the intimate Norse relationship with water as gained from generations of seafaring and life in the fjords.

The final piece, Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá [Rider of Darkness, Path of Light] (2016), features soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest, with Tara Schwab on flutes, Yuri Inoo playing percussion and guitarist Michael Kudirka. The piece proceeds in a series of 15 short tracks, each containing a fragment of the struggle between impending death and eternal light. As the liner notes explain: “With a text in Old Norse written by the composer, an ancient tongue blends two simultaneous stories: a difficult, violent, and painful journey toward the moment of death, represented by soprano and flute duo, and a recollection of the moment of death as remembered from a peaceful afterlife, where soprano and flute [are] joined by guitar and percussion.”

Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá opens with “Nátta (Night Falling).” There are mystical bells clanking, a fluttering flute and soft vocals calling out an incantation of the spirits as darkness falls. This immediately establishes a strong sense of the otherworldly that is present throughout the piece. Other tracks follow, building the story from alternating perspectives of existential dread and solemn repose. In tracks representing the Path of Light, the sounds are restrained and peacefully expressive. Where the Rider of Darkness is present, the feeling is full of tension and anxiety, with the vocals often reaching upward to something approximating a musical scream.

The power, control and range of Ms. Wiest’s voice is especially impressive given the intense emotive requirements over the arc of the story, as well as the many challenging vocal techniques contained in the score. As explained in the liner notes: “Many individual theoretical and stylistic elements are employed: non-octave harmonies, various microtonalities including both equal-tempered and just-intonation microtunings, a variety of “leitmotif” like melodic motives; extended and developed rhythmic talas, large-scale formal proportional symmetries, and extended performing techniques such as: singing into the flute…” All of this blends seamlessly into the ensemble as Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá unfolds.

In one of the later tracks, “Path of Light III”, there is a series of passages consisting of falling notes from the voice and instruments that clearly evoke the sense of one’s final living moments. The text for this is:

“My Path of Light has arrived,
Falling from the dark sky,
Like blood from the Death-blow.”

“Sunset” then follows with strong vocals, sung as if in rebellion against death. “Silence” is next, with a soft and sweetly resigned voice, now at peace. A haunting epilogue of hushed flute tones and the jangling of mystical beads quietly ends the piece. Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá [Rider of Darkness, Path of Light] is a harrowing journey from dark to light, skillfully composed and delivered with transcendent performances.

These days there is much discussion about the value of art in our culture. It should be obvious from this CD that what we know of the Old Norse peoples comes down to us most clearly through their legends and poetry. Often, when we look into the past we see a reflection of ourselves; the drama and the darkness heard in this album surely reflect some of the pessimism of our own tumultuous present.

All of the tracks on this album consistently capture the power of the Old Norse legends, masterfully realized through contemporary musical forms. Even when the complexity of the music approaches its unrelenting maximum, Holmes’ texture is transparently clear, with just the right notes always in just the right places. Rider of Darkness, Path of Light is a compelling journey into the heroic past and a telling commentary on our own present – superbly conveyed in 21st century musical language.

Rider of Darkness, Path of Light is available at Amazon Music.