The last time we encountered Ulises Conti was four years ago, with the release of a playful piano “sound alphabet” ~ one song for each letter, with a couple bonuses thrown in. On Los efimeros, he’s changed his style so drastically that at first we didn’t recognize him. Only after the craftsmanship is revealed ~ and the title translated (“the ephemeral ones”) ~ do we start to peer beneath the disguise and glean hints of his identity. The polymorph’s prior projects have included “soundtracks, soundwalks and concerts for an audience of one.” This time around, he’s produced a dramatic work for a 15-piece orchestra of French horn, harp, viola and bassoon: not a piano, bell or choir in sight. The cover is perhaps unnecessary; we know this is composed. It serves to highlight Conti’s strength at the cost of any aesthetic appeal. One can judge this album by its cover.
Sustained phrases are a key to Conti’s work here. Elements are introduced in turn, given their space in the sonic field, build upon build with occasional drops. Slowly, slowly, the drama develops, making its first big emotional impact in “Virelay.” The title refers to a medieval style of French poem, which Conti imitates in his composition. In the hands of a lesser composer, such intelligence might come across as showy or dry; in this case, the deliberation is calm, even pensive. This feeling deepens in the “Taps”-referencing “Lies,” which feels like an overcoat at a cold funeral.
Conti’s soundtrack experience comes to bear on “Interludio,” as the pace divides between fast strings and slow brass. The appearance of whispers on the subsequent track implies secrets and mystery, the brass blasts a coronation ~ perhaps a plot is in motion to kill the king? Once those huge drums enter, one imagines a fatal processional. The drama continues to swirl through the devastating conclusion, “Elegía,” a poem for the dead. Conti’s story may be open to interpretation, but its trajectory is not. Great nobility is implied by this closing piece, leading one to believe that a revolution may be in the works. But what form will the next chapter take? The next time we hear Conti, he may be completely unrecognizable once more: the maestro on the run, outlawed by the new regent. (Richard Allen)