Solitaire is a glorious and life-affirming album. Mirla (Emily Mirla Harrison) addresses issues of isolation, separation, loss and hope, documenting a period that might be mistaken for 2020-21, but is in fact 1942-44. Drawing sustenance from the past, she uncovers lessons for the present, celebrating female resilience and power, finding the story in her own family history.
While the story may be familiar to Australians, it will likely be new to international listeners. Harrison’s teenaged grandparents (portrayed on the cover) had just begun dating, but were separated by the Second World War. Arthur’s story seems on the surface to be the more dramatic, already immortalized in Arthur’s War (of which segments are quoted on the album). Arthur’s vessel was sunk two weeks into the war; he was captured and pressed into servitude; during a transfer, his second boat was sunk and he drifted for days on a piece of debris.
But this was not just Arthur’s war; it was Mirla’s as well. Mirla who waited, Mirla who watched, Mirla who wrote, Mirla who agonized when all her letters returned unopened. This is where the composer’s story begins, as she pores over her grandmother’s letters to connect on levels both personal and communal. By highlighting the drama of the one left behind, the composer places her on equal footing; by underlining her strength, she showcases a unique sort of role model: the person who loves without encouragement, who keeps on keeping on, and who thrives creatively and spiritually when all around seems to be falling apart.
Working with diary excerpts, original poetry, field recordings, piano and string trio, the granddaughter weaves her own tapestry. In each case, the outcome is less important than the approach. The album’s quiet subtitle is The Virtue of Patience, but Solitaire is about much more than patience; it’s about incorporation, inspiration and imagination. The story is brought to life in a manner that suggests a radio-play; one can imagine the curtain drawn back on a stage production or a family huddled around a living room receiver.
Tacking all the narrative parts herself, the composer speaks through a lens of love; her grandparents loved each other, and she loved them. Overture “Prelude Solus” tells the story in miniature over crickets and the sound of a ticking clock. As the words subside ~ the time that I, and millions like me – mothers, fathers, wives, sisters, sweethearts and children – became truly intimate with hope ~ the strings advance. The album is melancholy, but not sad.
And then a solo piano piece whose story is as poignant as that of the protagonists. In the time of quarantine, the composer went to visit her dying grandmother, reenacting a longing like that of generations before. She played a tune on an out-of-tune piano, remarking that she had no title. Her grandmother declared that it should be called “Longing.” A track later, the composer, still in lockdown, incorporates her own husband’s poetry, history repeating in reassuring fashion. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but those who honor it may blossom. When the clock returns, the ticking splits into intimations: the passage of time, the current climate, the separation of Mirla and Arthur, and a sister composition, the primary theme of Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk.
Solitaire‘s title may be based on the time-killing game, with an allusion to the now-ubiquitous practice of solitude, forced or unforced. Yet at its heart, the album tilts in the opposite direction, toward connection and reunion. The hardest sounds ~ a thunderstorm, the tolling of a church bell ~ are immediately followed by those of children at play. We have spent a year and a half in a state of longing, followed by a brief period of respite, then new quarantines. We know what it means to be alone. But do we know what it means to be alone well? This is where Mirla’s tale resonates. In “Queen of Hearts,” a generation of women unleashes their bottled emotion and discovers strength in community. If we are truly “alone, together,” as some adverts put it in the past year, are we truly alone? Which is more important: our love for a specific person, or love itself?
The story of Mirla and Arthur ends happily, while continuing in the music of their granddaughter. What better way to proclaim that true love is never truly lost? (Richard Allen)
Release date 3 September