Album Review : Lea Bertucci – Of Shadow and Substance : Pushing through electro -acoustic boundaries and shifting our perspectives.

The Breakdown

Bertucci’s music is rarely driven by escapism but is more intent on questioning where we are now. As 'Of Shadow and Substance' develops, its complex passage ensures you focus, connect and reflect on what is and what has just happened.
Cibachrome Editions 8.9

For over a decade of releases and live performance Lea Bertucci has drawn on the shapes, sounds and possibilities of the clarinet, saxophone, strings, vibraphone and harp to create long form, experimental music that challenges, intrigues and entrances. This dedication means the New York based sound artist dances to the left of the leftfield, in a space where the timbres, textures, tunings and harmonic dimensions of acoustic instruments are the raw materials. It’s a space that places Bertucci in an artistic tradition that stretches from Stockhausen and Cage to Tony Conrad and the recently departed Catherine Christer Hennix, a space in which she continues to thrive.

In 2021 she set up her own Cibachrome Editions imprint to re-house her significant back catalogue and play host to those inevitable new directions. A year later saw the first ‘new’ release on the label, ‘Murmurations’, an exquisite dive into drone plus real time vocal manipulation with Ben Vida and now comes her next aural expedition, ‘Of Shadow And Substance. Consisting of two long form compositions Bertucci has already revealed that this new album in many ways has assumed its own identity: “More so than any of my other music, I don’t feel that these works belong to me. There is something about them that is beyond myself as an individual and provides, if anything, a brief glimpse into what it is to be human in what feels like these waning days of the Anthropocene.” Where this exceptional music takes the listener is similarly somewhere outside of knowing.

It may also be symptomatic of the emotive enormity that Bertucci associates with these new pieces that the performances don’t feature her own instrumental contributions. Vapours opens the record, presented by the contemporary string ensemble Quartetto Maurice. This is a group who since 2002 have committed to placing 20th and 21st century music at the centre of their repertoire and whose motivation for making electro-acoustic connection is undiminishing. Hence commissioning this piece from Bertucci and transforming her vision with such graphic intention. Vapours is a soundtrack where disappearance and disintegration gets played out in microscopic detail, the reactions and interactions dissipating to a gradual empty silence.

Challenged by Bertucci to imagine the duality of meanings associated with the title, a natural haze, a toxic cloud, a dated symptom of hysteria, the resulting semi-improvisational performance of Vapours merges tension and rest. It’s the ebb and flow between these states that gives the piece a structure and narrative. Things start delicately the quartet’s twin violins fluttering within a mid-toned drone but that separation soon tangles as all four players converse as a collective. At one point the strings resolve around a shared stretched note before opening up the sonic murmuration once more.

But it’s not all tidal shifts and music with momentum that sketches Vapours’ trail. Mid – point the interpretation is more frantic, the playing desperately discordant as the ensemble descends into sub bass regions with a free jazz urgency. Then as the piece approaches its sombre hushing close, the distant trickle of chiming patterns maybe offer hope or signal a final twitch before disappearance. The focus shown by Quartetto Maurice in this live recording is extraordinary as is the intricate control of the sound and mix by Bertucci and recordist Luca Morino. The friction of bow on strings, the subliminal melodies, the percussive taps that bubble, this is a composition enriched with microscopic electronic detailing.

The album’s title piece Of Shadow and Substance is another live recording but here Bertucci’s experimental mixing principles both jog the memory and jolt the senses. In her statement about the piece she describes this epic journey through tone and dynamics as ‘a meditation on time travel’. But this is no audio Tardis or fanciful dabble in science fiction. Bertucci’s music is rarely driven by escapism, being more committed to questioning where we are now. As Of Shadow and Substance develops, its complex passage ensures you focus, connect and reflect on what is and what has just happened.

Commissioned by Philadelphia’s ARS NOVA Workshop, like Vapours the piece is for a quartet but this time with unconventional components, double bass, cello, percussion and harp. The soundscape is also more engulfing, the instruments’ interplay sculpted by Bertucci’s inclination here to layer sequences together. This creates surging crescendos that peak through Of Shadow and Substance’s opening half, each beginning from a different starting point. Coiling arcs of pulsing vibration, hacking yelps from cello and bass, urgent single note staccato, all get folded in on themselves to create the dynamic surge. The effect may be less explosive than Pupillo and Corsano’s ‘Via Combusta‘ but, in their rise and fall, the impact is equally seismic.

That’s not the whole story though as the quartet’s unravelling real-time performance meets Bertucci and live recordist Chris Mudak’s vibrant abstractions. Differing high points will filter through on every listen: the cranking monotone of the cello that revolves with a series of dramatic drum rolls; the harmonic high pitched squeals that slowly slip into a silence; or the almost raga swirl of the closing section where harpist Lucia Stavros introduces miniscule melody snatches. What will be less variable is the effect which this most visceral music will have each time you engage, you will travel. Lea Bertucci’s new album demands concentration, stretches the imagination and shifts perspectives.

Get your copy of ‘Of Shadow And Substance‘ by Lea Bertucci from your local record store or direct from Cibachrome Editions HERE

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