Over the past year, most of us have been in and out of national lockdowns, or other forms of isolation. Some have jumped in at the deep end, learning new skills or confronting old challenges. Many have struggled just to keep their heads above water. Most of us have been forced to find new ways of operating, personally, professionally, or creatively. Canadian composer, Frank Horvat, has brought friends and collaborators together against the odds, creating the kind of album none of us knew would be necessary.
Music for Self-Isolation centres on a suite of thirty-one short pieces, composed by Horvat to occupy the minds and diverse instruments of isolated musicians. Six of the pieces are duets, but the majority are for one performer alone. Practiced at home, played into the digital void, these thirty-one compositions were finally unveiled at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. The stage was set. The two-thousand seats remained empty. The musicians came out one by one (or two by two) and worked their magic in an empty, cavernous space. Now that the recording has arrived, we can give them the ovation they deserve.
Horvat’s pieces cover many of the major instruments of the classical repertoire, with a few surprises along the way. We might expect to hear a piecemeal symphony. But on the contrary, these are distinct, lonesome miniatures, capturing the thoughts, hopes, and exhaustions of a difficult time. An opening track for cello establishes a mournful mood. But we burst headlong into jubilant piano, with boundless confidence for a new future. Horvat’s music traverses the full gamut of emotion. When an instrument stands alone, all the potential of its individual timbre and tradition is on offer.
Perhaps the most expressive tracks are those for piano and for voice. On track 21 (for piano), Lisa Tahara leads us through self-doubt and despair, before teetering on the edge of resolution. Track 31 (for voice and piano) pairs Tahara with Meredith Hall, whose wonderful, lyrical delivery transfigures Kathleen Burke’s text, “A Stone”. In this irrefutable yearning for the experience of a pocketed stone, is it the solidity, the tactility, or the simple company that appeals most?
Richard Moore is another standout, on track 4 (for marimba) and especially track 24 (for vibraphone). These percussive tracks rattle around the house with restless energy, but somehow lift us into anthemic optimism. Somewhat rare as solo instruments, Jennifer Stephen’s tuba (track 22) and Kathryn Ladano’s bass clarinet (track 27) offer odes to themselves, stretching deeply and restfully into the space between our desks and our beds. Meanwhile, Joseph Petric’s accordion (track 25) is a welcome addition to the classical concert hall: its mournful tune both saddens and delights, like a familiar story enlivened by retelling.
The album ends with “Together in Spirit”, a uniting of the musicians through technical wizardry. Of course, a Zoom call is a poor substitute for a family reunion. But it hardly detracts from the overall joy of this record. This music may have been composed in isolation; the recording may have taken place in an empty hall. But the listening brings intimate contact with Horvat and his troupe. We hear their inhalations between notes; we sense their seasoned touch over strings and valves. Contrary to the title, this is music against social isolation. (Samuel Rogers)