Listening for Bells is a bright, exuberant release, a rush of spring air in the midst of winter. This is the first studio release from Michigan quartet Virago, expanding to a sextet for this performance. The core of alto sax, violin, cello and vibraphone yields a fluid timbre akin to Bell Orchestre and Spindle Ensemble and is recommended to fans of either project. But Virago also has its own distinct identity, reflected through the genesis of this extended piece.
Listening for Bells has gone through several stages on its way to public release. Recalling the compositional techniques of John Cage, composer Harriet Steinke wrote four parts, each with four cells whose phrases could be played in any order, at any time, the most endearing being “when you hear bells.” Pavlovian associations aside, this produces a work partially composed, partially improvised, and until being set to tape, different every time. The current version is by no means the definitive one, merely the one that is right for now. It possesses an incredible sense of flow, so although the performers were invited to play the parts in any order, the tracks are placed where they should be, and reshuffling disrupts the stream. Endearing titles such as “Part C, but returning briefly to Part B” highlight the thought process beneath the presentation. And while one might expect to view bells on the cover, the flowing waves of artist Sofia Carbonara are a better match for the tone.
Part A awakens in languid fashion, stretching its arms with vibraphone and piano. The strings walk into the room and slowly open the blinds, revealing the brass players on the lawn, already sipping their coffee between phrases. Without watching the counter, there’s little indication of the transition to Part B, lovingly subtitled “but returning briefly to Part A.” Why leave the past behind when it is so warm and comforting? In fact, the first four pieces unfold in classic ABBA fashion, freely plucking phrases from each other like traded clothing. The main theme begins to emerge, though it will remain shy until the closing segments. “taking flight” is the most restrained piece, sounding like the gliding of a bird on the currents, perhaps over Carbonara’s waves.
The airy middle section provides a fine setup for the active conclusion, in which Parts C and D emerge. The main theme jumps to the fore at the start of Part C and remains there for most of the remainder, jumping instrument to instrument, providing an anchor for the other phrases, some of which unfold in half-time. At first, one is keyed to these eight notes, which have the potential to become an instrumental earworm; but once one begins to follow the other threads, one gleans a sense of their intricacy. A flurry of drums summons an increase in tempo, and then it’s off to the races in Part D until an elegant comedown returns to the quietude of the introduction.
We’re not sure where Virago will head next, as the live releases on their Bandcamp page are more abstract and avant garde. But as this Listening for Bells is nigh perfect, we suggest another team-up with Steinke. The composer has brought out the best in the quartet, highlighting their playful side, as well as their melodic. After this accomplished debut, their future seems as bright as their music. (Richard Allen)