The name of the project and the lushness of the album might cause one to assume that Dolphin Midwives is a large electronic ensemble. Instead Dolphin Midwives is the alias of multi-instrumentalist and composer Sage Fisher, perhaps best known for her harp but similarly proficient in zither, guitar, voice and electronics. In prior releases she’s also collaborated with a gamelan orchestra and directed a 26-person choir. As one might expect from this abbreviated resume, her music is multi-faceted, touching upon multiple genres at once.
Running throughout Dolphin Midwives’ work is a celebration of the feminine. Her ritualistic approach implies ceremonial dances and in quieter moments, meditation. (Pye Corner Audio does an incredible job highlighting the ritualistic element in their remix of “Mirror.”). Fisher writes, “This album is about change, about finding beauty and acceptance in the fractured, broken and vulnerable places. It’s about integration, of all of my selves, of the natural world and technology, of all of the brokenness and imperfection and insecurity and fragility of being femme in a patriarchal society.” But there’s nothing insecure about this set. It’s one of the most confident documents we’ve heard in quite some time, courageously embracing the artist’s vision, ironically pleasing without seeking to please. Looking at all the butterflies ~ or more accurately, pieces of butterflies ~ on the cover, one sees a visual representation of the theme.
Our ears were first drawn to the chiming of “TEMPLE V.” (“IV” is also found on Liminal Garden, while “I” and “III” can be heard on 2016’s orchid milk and “II” is unreleased.). This transportive installment extends a transcendent series in which each entry is unique yet complementary. The clear connection of “V” is to the finale of “III,” but the new composition is deeper in density. Meanwhile, “IV” shines a spotlight on Fisher’s prime instrument. For better or worse, people associate harps with clouds and angels, but Fisher rescues the beleaguered instrument from such narrow parameters. The pas-de-deux of harp and electronics offers a lively framework in which to reassess the instrument. And while performances in churches have cemented the association, the nature of this divinity is fluid.
Fisher has been (fairly) compared to Holly Herndon, thanks to her use of voice, first heard in “Grass Grow,” once in the middle of the album and again at the end. The voice is yet another instrument in her arsenal, subject to looping, layering and processing, producing gossamer threads of sound. What is she trying to say, one might ask? Her tones speak louder than words. The “pure” harp that opens “Junglespell” connotes strength through gentleness, beauty through fragility, offering a counterpart to the harshness of modern rhetoric. When the harsher tones enter, they do so as if to challenge, but Fisher finds common ground, integrating these sounds to produce a powerful patchwork.
Liminal means transitional, but the secondary definition is “to occupy a position on both sides of a boundary.” This nuanced approach is the key to understanding, to reconciliation, to peace. Fisher may not be an angel on a cloud, but she bears the same holy message. (Richard Allen)