The program so sincerely produced on the labor of forgetting, the debut release from False Azure Records, reminds me of Pauline Oliveros, who once said, “Listening is selecting and interpreting and acting and making decisions.” Indeed, the music of Katherine Balch (b. 1991) and Dante De Silva (b. 1978), in the handling of soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, underscores the agency of listening as a process in physical flux, even when its subjects are fixed in time and space. The aural objects herein, as grandly interpreted as they are intimately assembled (if not the reverse), bend details into hooks on which we are invited to hang the keys of our distractions while not forgetting the darkness nipping at our heels.

De Silva’s Shibui (2009) opens in mourning, paying respects to Deborah Clasquin, a mentor for both De Silva as composer and McCullough as performer. The piece’s title, lifted from the Japanese tongue, refers to the tartness the latter might taste, but also to a quiet sense of understatement or even a sullen look. As an invisible integration of Bartók’s Élegy op. 8b no. 1, it barely bends under the weight of its allusions. Gentle chords are hammocks for the heaviest emotions, all of which are given rest until they can stand on two feet.

Four Years of Fog (2016) for just-tuned piano follows with a gaze into early adulthood. The whimsical tuning, contrived yet unabashedly beautiful, illuminates as much as it obscures. Subtitles like “Blissfully Ignorant” and “Sickness and Exile” read familiarly to anyone who has lived (or is living) those inevitable stages. And yet, as the octave ails behind closed eyes, we open our ears to a healing sound, unbidden to dance because the notes dance for us. Thus, are we born again, slapped in the rear like the piano at the end into self-awareness.

“Only once did she feel loved by a man / on what we might call / the wash of the cellular level.” So begins Balch’s estrangement (2020), which sets the poetry of Katie Ford (b. 1975) in an astonishing song cycle. Intended as the dark side of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, it turns the paradigm of north-bearing love into a spinning compass. Fitz Gibbon renders a body through her voice and McCullough the molecules it inhales and exhales. As in the textual play of György Kurtág, though with more attention to punctuation, Balch holds every syllable accountable for its unfolding, allowing the mind to fantasize and count it for reality. Fitz Gibbon clothes the words mindfully, flipping the operatic switch on and off at will, morphing from lullaby to whisper to microtonal shiver to aphasic slur without hesitation. This lends the bearer of language power over the flesh being described or unwritten. The fifth movement is especially impactful in its restraint, as is its successor, “the film,” in which the mise-en-scène of a relationship is repeated to the point of fallacy. The tenth movement, “only the song,” is the most visceral for its stops and starts, as if challenging sustained beauty as an illusory complex.

The final movement concedes that sustain, darkening it with images of disunity: “Sometimes she thought of her love for him / like a donated heart / preserved in a jar.” Hearing De Silva’s Shibui (reprised in just intonation) in closing, we feel the caps spun onto the jars of our own hearts. Birds in the background remind us of where we are and, more importantly, where we were never meant to go. We are always alone in our hearts, thus sung until the lungs of our identities empty themselves and move on without us.

If any of this seems morbid and hopeless, it’s because the honeycombed hardships of its upbringing are proven for their sweetness. Fitz Gibbon and McCullough, like the artists animating their throat and fingers, understand that the upswing of retrospection is fruitless without falling into lessons of self-reckoning. And while we may tell ourselves the pandemic is behind us, any act of restoration in its rubble is a lie without the mortar of care. Let this album be one slather in the right direction.

the labor of forgetting is released to the wider world on November 4, 2022.