Few images unmistakably capture the American West more than the image on the front cover of Lea Bertucci’s new album, even if this one has been vividly colourised. Sure, there are more distinct rock formations such as the Arches (in the same state) but for many, this is the USA – the remote, inhospitable, desert lands of Utah that served as a background for any number of Westerns that we grew up watching. A monochrome version of the picture could double for an Ansel Adams photograph, images that introduced the natural beauty of the States to a national and international audience. You might not have been to these places, but you know them – areas that were backdrops to the pioneering spirit and adventure, and more importantly home to tribal nations who lived on and conserved the land for centuries.
The shot of the Grand Plateau used for A Visible Length Of Light has been chosen quite deliberately, not just selected from a stock gallery. It’s by David Benjamin Sherry who has been photographing the four National Monuments, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante, that were earmarked by the Trump presidency for reduction of area to exploit the land for its resources. The altered colours of the images in his series are arresting – and unnatural, as is the concept of carving up the land for profit, which would be short-lived and unsustainable as well as environmentally catastrophic. Currently, the plan to change the status of these monuments is being challenged in the courts. It will hopefully be overturned by the Biden administration, evidence that things may be slowly improving in 2021.
Lea Bertucci composed and recorded A Visible Length Of Light during 2020, so the full experience of living through a pandemic and Trump’s final year in office is writ large in the grooves here. It is, in a way, a travelogue, reaching out westwards from New York. In the past, she has tended towards longer-form pieces, but here the album’s eleven tracks sit comfortably on two sides of vinyl. The seven longer pieces sit alongside four shorter “Refrains”, where Bertucci improvises her flute playing in response to the sounds outside her apartment. The sounds of the outside are a constant theme throughout the album with field recordings taken from Rio De Janeiro, California and Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay underpinning her compositions. On a couple of the tracks, “Threshes” and “Grasslands” these sounds sit at the forefront, but more frequently they sit under the shifting tones of Bertucci’s saxophone, clarinet and organ.
Grounded in New York, and also recorded during a residency in Omaha, Nebraska, it is fascinating to hear how Lea Bertucci responds to the sounds of nature. It’s a sympathetic response, the instrumentation bobbing and weaving around the field recordings, and that is particularly noticeable on the four “Refrains”; one can picture John Coltrane practising his saxophone for hours on end in his apartment with the window open, and responding to the sounds of the neighbourhood as they provided an accompaniment to his playing – not that Lea Bertucci plays her instruments like Coltrane, but the notion of letting the city in, to take part in the creative process, is one that I think links the two. From the city, the music takes us to wide-open spaces, the expansive and untamed regions of the west, in the longer tracks. The cyclical sounds of the saxophone hint at uncertainty, and fragility of nature; the threat of industrialisation in an unspoilt wilderness, the encroachment of humans. The music on A Visible Length Of Light can be unsettling, but it is never awkwardly angular or atonal – it is, in fact, extremely approachable. The listener can engage in the music, without having to necessarily consider the bigger picture, but that will eventually filter through.
Bertucci has been prolific, even allowing for the pandemic, with commissions, compositions and recordings. When an artist has a burgeoning back catalogue, it isn’t always easy to direct an interested listener towards the best starting off point; it’s particularly the case for the experimental and underground artists. The rise of streaming services makes obscure and out of print releases easier to find, but the musicians rarely benefit. Lea Bertucci has countered this by setting up her own label (Cibachrome Editions) and, more importantly, releasing the most accessible and, arguably, finest record to date. Its genesis has come out of a difficult period and it doesn’t shy away from engaging politically – instrumental music can do this, it doesn’t have to be a well-meaning troubadour with a battered acoustic guitar – but by keeping the compositions concise and combining field recordings with graceful and radiant arrangements, A Visible Length Of Light gives the audience an essential record of a tumultuous period. (Jeremy Bye)