Last year we reviewed Derek Hunter Wilson‘s Steel, Wood & Air; this year he’s joined Joshua Ward to form Niksen. We’ve used an alternate take of the cover image on our home page since we used the original on the first page of our Fall Music Preview; Ward is responsible for the photos, Wilson for the paint. In the same manner, the composers play off each other’s strengths to create a blended whole.
The album is tender and gentle, a counterbalance to the tumult of Portland, Oregon. In recent weeks, the region has been the site of widespread protests, met by a disproportionate federal response; this weekend the city is under a state of emergency as evacuation orders have been issued in the face of raging wildfires. The city can’t seem to catch a break. And here is Niksen, holding the line in the heart of the storm. In “A Quiver of Light,” Wilson’s piano is buoyed by Ward’s harp, producing a misty daydream.
Where is this Invisible City? Is it lost in Calvino’s imagination, or a creation of our own ~ a place to which we might retreat, to hear the sound of far-off waves (“Was Not Quite the Same”) and imagine that we are safe and sound, that there is no pandemic, no riot in the streets, no orange sky, no looming apocalypse? An invisible city is still a real city, like the community stepping forth to sweep broken glass the morning after it is shattered, or the humble food bank, overrun with anonymous donations. We must believe in this invisible city. As Adam Zagajewski writes, “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.”
The title “Places That Turn to Air” seems eerily prescient. But the fascination with the ethereal persists throughout the set. There is more going on than we know, like the photo beneath the painting or the setting behind the photo. We choose how to paint over what we see: what colors, what beliefs, what attitudes. As the mood grows heavier, one can sense an internal struggle. But as “Places That Turn to Air” returns to its earlier simplicity, the effect is that of a breath held too long, finally exhaled. Echoes of oceans return in the closing piece. Halfway through, the piano finds a lilt in its step.
In the face of today’s looming danger, one can only hope that the duo can draw strength from its own soothing music, to remember and recalibrate, to return to their own invisible city. We’re pulling for you, Portland. (Richard Allen)