Inner Astronomy is an album of new vocal music from 4Tay Records and composer Molly Pease. Inspired by the poetry of the late Randall Pease, Inner Astronomy is structured as a cantata with exquisite singing and a superbly understated accompaniment from a small string ensemble. The music on the album reflects “ ..the poet’s search for strength and meaning through spare and metaphorical language…” and incorporates a number of experimental techniques. The result a testament to the emotional power of vocal music when guided by a spiritual theme.
The poetry of Randall Pease reflects the struggle of the poet with addiction, recovery, dementia, and cancer. But it contains, at the same time, vivid imagery and instances of hope and joy within its economical framework. Here is a fragment from the first track, Recovery Family:
lip buds bloom as if they’re moons
Spirits starring, still eyes shining
To pass to others
As if one mother
The music for this is similarly concise, starting with a single vocal tone, whose pitch bends as it is sustained. The strings enter quietly underneath with a series of active phrases that contrast effectively with the smoothly expressive vocal line. The text is delivered calmly and deliberately as the strings, never dominating, add an undercurrent of uncertainty. This compact architecture is perfectly aligned with the feelings and sensibilities inherent in the poetry.
The other pieces on the album proceed in similar fashion – the vocals are always in the foreground with the string ensemble offering a subdued counter commentary. The overall sound is always under control and seldom includes any technical fireworks. Most of the tracks are short – less than eight minutes – but the emotional impact, rich details and technical precision are more than sufficient to fully engage the listener.
Track 5 is Higher Power and this piece combines three treble voices in close harmony along with the strings in a beautiful mix of interlacing parts and textures. The feeling is warm and expressive and the instrumental accompaniment is reminiscent of John Luther Adams’ string quartet music. The vocals enter again, building to a high dynamic peak, then subsiding back to the slow, lush sounds of the opening. The music reinforces the organically peaceful spirit of the text:
guide the way off
through tunnel trees
toward the sea
While just a short piece, deer proud of our climbs extends the artistic horizons with three voices curling in and around each other with masterful harmony and a beautifully balanced vocal technique. Tree’s Me is another short piece that mixes a light violin pizzicato with whispering wind and voice reciting the text. Two singing vocals enter and are heard mingling with the words in a lovely harmony of sustained tones. In general, when multiple voices are heard in any of the pieces in this album, the singing is precise, the tones are pure and the balance with the accompaniment is extraordinary. Inner Astronomy is compelling vocal music.
The sound engineering, mixing and mastering by Umberto Belfiore deserves special mention. All the pieces were performed live in the sanctuary of First Congregational Church, Los Angeles but the result is as precise as any studio recording and every subtle detail is clearly heard.
The poetry and music of Inner Astronomy brings us face to face with our inevitable human anxieties, even as its graceful elegance bequeaths to us a quiet confidence.
The personnel on Inner Astronomy are:
Poetry by Randall Pease
Molly Pease, Kathryn Shuman, Sharon Chohi Kim and Lauren Davis, vocals
Rachel Iba, Nigel Deane, violin
Patrick Benkhe, viola
Tal Katz, cello
Miller Wrenn, bass
Fahad Siadat, conductor
The Inner Astronomy CD is available at Amazon Music. The CD and digital downloads are also available at Bandcamp. A book of poetry by Randall Pease and the published score are available at See-A-Dot Music Publishing.