Michelle Ross, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir ~ The Whale Song

First, tell me a story.  

The whale emerges from the bowels of the deep.  She has been singing her songs for eons, swimming from depth to depth to share her intonations with ancient pods, learning intricate travelogues, gaining new impressions across shades of blue.  She turns for home, surfaces for breath, hears an unusual sound across the waves, diverts in order to investigate.

On a troubled boat above her, a group of monks are chanting faint, foreign hymns.  Might she incorporate these unique tones, this strange species in her own song?  She has scant time to ponder such thoughts; instead, she swallows the singers whole, to muse on them later.  From her belly, panic and thrashing; as the water drains, relief and thanksgiving; and finally, again, song.

She carries the monks within her.  They subsist on kelp and raw fish, chant the praises that work their way into the whale’s song.  She feels protective of them, like a second larynx.  The resignation of the occupants gives way to wonder.  Could this be Leviathan, the one of whom the LORD spoke, the savior of Jonah?  Might this be the place in-between, the afterlife before the afterlife?  Nature, spirit and beast coalesce into a whirlpool that will last as long as the final note.

Now, captivate me with a song.

New York composer-performer-director Michelle Ross, inspired by folklore and Hildegard Von Bingen, wrote The Whale Song for solo cello and electronics, the former performed here by Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir.  Prior to this EP, Ross’ violin work was showcased on Discovering Bach: Complete Violin Sonatas & Partitas and Samuel Adler: Chamber and Instrumental Music.  This fever dream of a release should catapult her into a new career phase.

The slow, sad song of the whale is conveyed in yearning notes.  Perhaps the loneliness is a human projection based on our limited frame of reference, descending to the depths of our own hearts ~ or our bellies.  Low, extended notes and pauses give way to momentarily swift sequences, like a turn toward the surface.  And then notes coy and playful, suggesting a winking whale, a splash after a surfacing.  Wood is struck like the hull of a boat.  The perspective shifts to agitation and uncertainty: a stomach that isn’t sure what it has eaten, contents that flail and keen.

The whale sings her song again.  From her belly, a tentative song responds, a first contact with the unknown.  Other monks join in, seeking a new harmony, not merely with each other but with their new home.  The cellist communicates comfort, returning to more measured notes, the intervening calm like the troughs between the waves, or the peace that passes understanding.

A major decision had to be made by Ross during the compositional period ~ should she include an inkling of Hildegard by adding vocals?  We applaud her restraint, just as we applaud her decision to imply rather than to show.  Sampled monks and  whalesong might have been appealing, but all too obvious, stealing the spotlight from the cellist.  The composition remains pure, an open frame.

Finally, show me a picture.

First the notes, watermarking their way across the screen; then the waves, animated by Lembit Beecher.  “Full of love and longing” is the cue.  The whale swims between horizons; schools of fish mirror murmurations.  The blue begins to emerge; paper, in macro, shimmers like the surface of the sea.  The whale surfaces, becomes shadow, plunges into the deep, its body now comprised of notes.  Like A Book of Kells, a story scrawled in the margins, watercolor whales, bluer and bluer until birds become waves.  Leviathan lies still at the bottom of the sea, light and music emanating from her belly.  The whale is dead, but her song lives on.  Now other whales race to sing her story to distant seas.  This ending is more wrenching and buoyant than we expect: a bittersweet blue, lingering in the mind, the ears, the eyes, the heart, sewn to the spirit by song.  (Richard Allen)

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