Last year, we named Hania Rani‘s video for “F Major” (directed by Neels Castillon) as one of 2020’s best. The video was our introduction to this superlative pianist. The only snag: the artist had just shifted to the vocal arena, while our website focuses on the instrumental. Fast-forward to 2021, and the release of Music for Film and Theatre, which falls squarely in our wheelhouse. Everybody wins!
So for the vocal-minded, we absolutely recommend last year’s Home, as the singing is sweet and beguiling. But for regular readers of our site, we invite you to re-enter Rani’s world through her recent productions for film, theatre and dance. In these tracks, one will hear her signature cascade style of piano playing, as well as an expansion of her sound into regions not yet heard. A bonus is the fact that some of these tracks are not found in the original works; they may be alternate versions, or pieces that failed to make the final cut.
The first three pieces are associated with the documentary “xAbo: Father Boniecki,” a portrait of an 85-year old Polish priest who has continued to work with great tenderness despite opposition ~ and occasional silencing ~ from the Catholic hierarchy over his work in the LGBT community and his empathetic eulogy for a self-immolating protester. Rani adopts the same gentle, reverent tone as one might expect from a caring priest, beginning with “Prayer,” which doesn’t have any piano at all, but wafts of harmonic tones like incense. When the ivories do enter, they convey a feeling of grace: more faith than religion; the strings capture the hope of change in a land of despair.
The heart of the collection ~ four tracks in total ~ is linked to “I Never Cry,” a 2020 film about a hard drinking 17-year old who takes a road trip to Ireland to procure the body of her recently-deceased father. The bittersweet tale does contain a lighter side, conveyed through pop and rock music in the trailer; Rani is responsible for bearing the heavier emotions, and does it well. If the rock songs convey Ola’s outer life, the piano portrays the reflection and possible regret; and the hums of “At the Hospital” sound like peace.
The album concludes with five orphan tracks that have finally found a home. Ironically, the placid first comes from “At Home” and seems a continuation of 2020’s similarly-titled album. “Wildfires” starts with strings that sound a rising alarm; as the piece progresses, one can smell the smoke and picture the volunteers fighting to get the blaze under control. The evocative “Ghosts,” written for Rani’s “first ‘real’ theatre play,” was recorded by string quartet in a “little wooden house.” The play is about attempts to commune with one’s ancestors, a topic with a dark side; and this is in fact the album’s darkest track, exposing a different side of the composer.
Fans of “F Major” will find “Soleil Pâle” the closest cousin, and yes! There is a video, as seen below. The theme of spontaneity is borne not only by the pianist, but by the dancers. Finally, it’s just Rani at her piano in “Nora,” needing no other adornment. As for what comes next, we believe that the sky is the limit for this composer, who has already demonstrated a mastery of her discipline plus an ability to surpass any prior expectations. She’s likely to surprise us again. (Richard Allen)