Through Lines is a gentle work, so gentle one might miss it, if not for a pair of intriguing videos. “Canon No. 3” is playful and fun, while “Lyra” is lovely and restrained. Together they showcase two sides of composer Molly Herron, whose works for viola da gamba are brought to life with the aid of the Science Ficta trio. It’s astonishing and bittersweet to learn that the instrument virtually vanished from the compositional world for two centuries prior to the modern era. Herron is dedicated to resurrecting the instrument’s popularity, and by demonstrating its many moods she opens the door for reappraisal.
Maiko Kikuchi’s take on “Canon No. 3” (which is also the album’s opening piece) is part children’s book and part Monty Python. One would not expect to see such surreal images: an alligator, sculpted heads, an owl with a bow, a couch made of water. To watch is to walk through a museum of suspended sound and to recall the appeal of endangered sound. The alligator and human protagonist walk across strings that resemble the album cover and reference the small orchestra. The images are cut and pasted, the sounds sewn.
But this is not all that Molly Herron is; and as demonstrated in Four/Ten Media’s “Lyra,” this is not all the viola da gamba is either. The instrument is plucked, strummed and stroked ~ a variety of approaches to honor the trees from which the wood is hewn. As the camera tilts skyward, the trees fill the screen, inferring how the music might feel when separated from the performers: calm, lush, sedate. The birdsong is in the video only, but implied in the track.
In contrast, “Canon No. 2,” which follows “Lyra” on the album, is louder, fuller, more assertive. While listening, some may ask, “isn’t that a cello?” This is proof of the viola da gamba’s range, as many ears might be fooled. The pizzicato technique is especially effective. “Roll” is another low-toned piece, nudging the bottom registers but noteworthy for its frequent starts and stops. In each silence, the last note sinks to the earth like a dying balloon, only to be caught in the next updraft. The title refers not to the roll of rock and roll, but the rolled chord. Those looking for rock might turn to the closing piece, “Hammer and Pull,” in which the instrument is played guitar style, in a manner that would make Fahey proud.
Through Lines is a showcase for a long-neglected instrument, a show-and-tell of timbres. Will the viola da gamba ever be as popular as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries? Herron’s enthusiasm begs the question, why not? (Richard Allen)