Vigils is a short but beautiful album, as long as one ignores the elephant in the room. Fortunately, it’s a small elephant ~ a long vocal track embedded at the album’s center. After 15 minutes of lovely piano, plus the contributions of site favorites Iskra String Quartet, one has almost reached the clouds; but the unexpected interruption drags the listener back to earth. Remove this piece, and nothing is left to break the spell.
Birkin’s album began as a series of haunted piano works recorded in an old barn. Each piece possessed the same title, and shared the theme of “watching.” Then other, newer inspirations spilled forth – mist, telephone lines, “destructive physics” – and more pieces were added to the set. Enter the quartet, and alchemy was achieved.
The sense of haunting is still apparent, although this particular haunting is not of the ghostly kind. Instead, it’s the regret of years gone by, paths not taken, blessings unnoticed, the sense of something just beyond the reach. On the album’s sparser tracks, a dew of loneliness settles on the keys. Nothing seems to threaten the composer as long as he plays, but he seems reluctant to surrender the ivories, lest the outer mist become an inner mist, and turn his heart to frost. These works are interspersed with fuller selections, some of which include electronics, especially the brief yet effective “The Human Voice” (which ironically does not contain the human voice).
In the most memorable tracks, all of the elements coalesce. “Night Sun” is the album’s highlight, with dark cello balanced by light glockenspiel. One can sense the shimmer in the evening air. When the violins enter, they contribute the sense that all the watching has paid off. A certain connection has been formed between piano and strings, artist and moon, music and listener, intimating a potentially deeper connection between human beings. The twinkling piano of “Vigil III” continues this sense of hopefulness, which soars across a sea of reflection in “Vigil V”, landing safely in the final, wistful vigil. Now that the moon has entered its fullest phase, the artist can rest, knowing the watch will continue in his absence. (Richard Allen)