This is didjeridu music for people who don’t prefer didjeridu music ~ I should know, because I’m one of them. On this set, San Francisco’s Del Sol Quartet, accompanied by Stephen Kent, brings the work of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe to a wider audience, providing a more intricate portrayal of the instrument than many have ever encountered.
As a reviewer, I’ve had to ask myself, “Why don’t you like this instrument?” The answer is simple ~ my encounters have been in the context of new age, ambient trance, and world music – not the authentic type of world music, but the type sold to the masses at The Nature Company (now closed). In those days, the didjeridu was used primarily as a gimmick, providing a whiff of international flavor, a “We Are the World” sensibility. This was an amazing disservice – to reduce the instrument to the status of novelty. But I fell for it, and I suspect others did as well, which is why the topic belongs front and center.
The rich history of the instrument, and the career of Peter Sculthorpe, can all be found online and in the copious liner notes of this thorough double-disc release (triple, if one counts the Blu-Ray). Suffice it to say that the former has been around for more than a millennium, and the career of the latter has spanned decades, ending sadly a month before the release of this collection was released. His work tends to be upbeat, despite serious themes, including the murder of Tasmanians (“String Quartet No. 14”) and the plight of Australian immigrants seeing asylum (“String Quartet No. 16”). The album’s opening and closing pieces (“String Quartet Nos. 12 and 18”) are more hopeful, concentrating on land, tradition, and Christianity (the latter piece referencing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”).
Would we know all this without reading? Perhaps not, but we might sense it in the superlative playing of the quartet turned quintet. It all starts with the didjeridu, of course, sometimes bearing the tone of a bass clarinet and other times imitating animal yelps and human cries. An extremely complicated and personal instrument, it allows the performer to project his or her own personality on the performance in a way that other instruments cannot. Kent is so fluid that we sometimes forget he’s there, but in solo moments – such as the end of the first disc and start of the second – one remembers not only the man, but the man behind the man, composing odes to his native land and people. While the barks at the beginning of “Loneliness” represent the sadness of an epistle, there’s no mistaking the location.
In other movements, the string quartet takes the lead, playing with intensity and verve. These are not staid compositions, and they require performers who can bend without breaking. “Anger” (from the 16th) is particularly engaging, a burst of staccato that seems out of place until one recalls the context. “String Quartet No. 12” (the earliest of these compositions) is rich is timbre and smooth in transition, moving between sections with incredible grace. The quartet clearly loves this material and honors the material by embruing it with great emotion, which can only be heightened in retrospect as one thinks of the composer, his earthly life now complete. To my own shame, it was only after Sculthorpe had passed that I began to like the didjeridu. But from another perspective, it’s evidence that his legacy continues to grow. (Richard Allen)