We love a unified thematic release. Chains Like the Sea places its planets in alignment. Robert Henry Harrison‘s cover art is the entry point. This oil painting, Dylan Thomas Boathouse, is angular yet measured, a taming of wave and architecture, a fluid representation of Bernard Rands‘ music. The reference to the poet amplifies the theme of the album, whose title track is inspired by Thomas’ Fern Hill, published in the wake of the Second World War. Rands was alive during that time, albeit young. Looking back on his storied career, he is likely experiencing many of the thoughts communicated by Thomas, taking perspective of time and wondering that it can be so eternal, yet so specific. There are also geographical connections. Rands once lived in Wales, where Harrison resides, and Welsh themes permeate the music, especially the “Cello Concerto;” the Welsh word hiraeth “connotes nostalgia and deep longing for the homeland;” Rands moved to the United States in 1975, but at age 85 continues to look back. Today is his birthday.
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves Trail with daisies and barley Down the rivers of the windfall light... And the sabbath rang slowly In the pebbles of the holy streams.
These extracts from Thomas’ poem lend their words to the titles of Rands’ movements, albeit reversed in order. They recall a carefree, contented time. Yet Thomas ends on a more contemplative note:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, Time held me green and dying Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Over the course of nearly twenty-two minutes, Rands blends his own sense of hiraeth with that of Thomas. The introductory section is playful and exploratory, peering into caves and crevasses, seeking excitement on an otherwise dull Sunday as the air is punctuated by interruptions of chimes. Rands recalls this earlier era in which children were left to their own devices, blessed or cursed by their own imaginations. Every brass explosion is a momentary thrill, the clash of sticks or fists, the discovery of an imaginary monster, a call to arms. Even in the presence of death, the soldiers returning home, there is little thought of real death, not for a child exploring the landscape. Ironically, in the eighth minute the chimes don’t ring slowly; the shift in perspective reflects the hearing rather than the listening. The day beckons; time is an afterthought.
The second movement starts like the charge of a happy child army. Time is folding back on itself, memory and experience entangled. Generations have passed, and the mind questions its readings. Was it all so carefree? The orchestra darts from thought to thought, string to woodwind, different leaders at different junctures. As Rands implies, the ultimate cacophony of chimes is a segment to which everyone can relate. Hearing so many tones in such a short time echoes time’s dissolution, simultaneously recalling the freedom of life without watches and signaling the start of eternity.
The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Clark Rundell) remains on point throughout this complex recording. The three-part “Cello Concerto” is actively intelligent, yet slightly more restrained in tone. Descending into brief periods of introspection (especially in the second movement), Johannes Moser swerves through the blasts of percussion and strings, seeking and finding space. These forces alternate and converge, finally reaching a (still tenuous) understanding. The concerto was composed for Russian composer Mstislav Rostropovitch for his 70th birthday, a beautiful gift for a friend in exile, even more poignant 23 years later as Rands’ own thoughts tumble to hiraeth.
The most recent piece is an outlier in theme, but not in mood. “Danza Petrificada” (commissioned in 2010) is a tribute to the people of Mexico, specifically inspired by a poem from Octavio Paz titled Vistas Pijas (Scenic Views). The phrase “a banquet of forms … always in transit toward their future forms” is of particular interest, as Rands applies the concept to music. But we point out the following stanza:
and crossing the street for no particular reason, because it is, like a surge of sea or the sudden ripple in a field of corn, like a sun breaking through a thick layer of cloud : happiness, fountain of instantaneous joy – to be alive, to crack open the pomegranate of the hour and eat it seed by seed …
These words resonate when applied to the album as a whole. As Rands writes, one can relate to the piece no matter where one lives: the cicadas, the tambourines, and most of all, the joy of being alive, traveling through time in one’s memory while devouring the present moment, discarding the husk. This is the life that Rands has lived and continues to live. Happy 85th birthday, and many more! (Richard Allen)