We love discovering new artists as they debut. Hong Kong’s Sea Island & Ferry caught our attention with an evocative name and unusual setup of piano, cello, xiao (Chinese bamboo flute) and saxophone. The quartet is billed as a “neochamber ensemble”, and has unveiled Crossings in digital form a full season before its physical release. In the ensuing months, filmmaker No. 6 will be preparing visual accompaniment for a gala multimedia concert.
The tenderness of Sea Island & Ferry’s music resounds from the very first track, “Clouds”, which is part of the larger “River Beas” composition. Gentle piano guides the listener into the album, while saxophone draws a shawl around the listener’s shoulders for comfort. The ensemble’s name implies passage to a safe harbor. This is apparent not only in their music, but in their inspirations, which range from the European refugee crisis (“Adrift”) to transgender concerns (“Living Under Water”). These sea themes can be applied as metaphors to a myriad of situations, yet each wordless song ends in a quiet docking.
The paired piano and cello imply the rocking of the waves, while the flute and saxophone honor the prevailing winds. To listen is to float adrift between locations physical, emotional and philosophical. The ten-minute “Salt Chronicles” tells the story of the island Yim Tin Tsai, which went from deserted to full to empty again, is known for its salt marshes, and allegedly now has “at least one inhabitant”. The fact that it is accessible only by ferry certainly appealed to the ensemble, who may find in this physical crossing a reflection of their own story.
We’re not surprised that a visual component will soon be added to the ensemble’s presentation. What remains to be seen is its form. Will it be impressionistic, lending itself to wide interpretation, or will it be specific and confrontational, a la GY!BE? We suspect that No. 6 will split the difference, pushing the envelope as much as possible while continuing to honor the non-confrontational nature of the music. As turbulent as these waters get (the darker tone of “Living Under Water”), the ferry stays afloat. Sea Island & Ferry seems to be saying, stay the course. The shore is in sight. (Richard Allen)