Pasture & Storm: the music of Sadie Harrison
A vitally important disc, full of humanity and compassion while remaining uncompromising in its musical delivery
We met composer Sadie Harrison (born 1965) before on Classical Explorer - her piece Fire in Song was featured on the disc for clarinet and strings.
The title of this newest disc refers to Harrison's Pasture and Storm Project: music for left-hand alone pianist, begun in early 2020 and finished in Autumn 2022. Two events had a major effect on the composer: inevitably, the pandemic, but also the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Various people have been further inspirations: a young pianist with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a chance meeting with two amateur pianists, both of whom were rehabulitating after suffering right-sided strokes. The pianist Nicholas McCarthy was born without a right hand; he became the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music.
The title comes from the writings of American cell biologist Kenneth Raymond:
The piano's world encompasses glass-nerved virtuos (sic) and stomping barrel-housers in fedoras, it is a world of pasture and storm, of perfumed smoke, of liquid mathematics.
Landscape is at the core of this album, whether that is the three works doirectly related to Afghanistan (Kabul, 'When I woke at midnight'; The Nightingales of Afghanistan; I kiss the earth); ... the people of His pasture (Scenes from the Luttrell Psalter); Work Songs for the Land (the bonus download) and I sha'n't be gone long (The Pasture) relate to living and working in pastoral landscapes. Explorations of psychogeography seem to be at the heart of the work here, it seems (the word has wider and deeper resonannces than the Wikipedia article implies). Other works, Round Dances and The Book of Storms, touch upon and share these ideas.
The first piece we hear is The Book of Storms and Mists for solo left-hand piano, performed by McCarthy. Each movement offers a paired soundworld: Debussy/Thoreau, Rachmaninov/Bradbury and so on. Here's the Debussy/Thoreau, '...meadow of the air' so you can feel a bit of that Impresionist breeze filtered through Harrison's pen. This is the second movement, headed 'Caprice':
It would be good, perhaps, to listen to that bearing in mind the accompanying quote from Thoreau:
Fountain-head and source of rivers, Dew-cloth, dream-drapery, And mapkin spread by fays; Drifting meadow of the air ...
The Albéniz (fourth) movement is fascinating, a 'Pasadoble' (not one I can imagine being Strictly-fied). This is deep, profound; Harrison's art is to invoke the spirit of Albéniz so supremely well, but again from her own viewpoint. McCarthy's pianism is, as you will hear, magnificent, evocative, musky. First, though, the quote (this time Lorca):
I want them to teach me to weep like a river of sweet mists and deep shores, to carry the body of Ignacio, to free him from the double snorting of the bull
An interesting point is raised by music with attendant quotations, particularly as Harrision referenced Debussy in one of her pieces. Debussy's Préludes famously have the title printed after the music, at the end, and not before. Should we listen to the music first, then reflect on the quote? Or hear the music in the context of the quotation? Both are possible, of course - something to experiment with, perhaps!
The song-cycle I kiss the earth is for voice (here Peyee Chen, a singer with a crystelline tone and posessed of pin-point tuning) and piano (Tomáš Klement) sets texts from an anthology of Afghan sung poetry that equate 'the many faces of nature and qualities of love,' as Harrison puts it. The final movement is a response to the Taliban's return to Afhantistan in August 2021 ('War came to Kabul and her northern p;lain. God send them blessings and human kindness'). There is such poignant beauty here: try the third song, 'Snow' (the text is 'It's two or three days since I saw my sweetheart. Snow came and covered the ground - the ground was locked with snow. So when will I see my love?'):
No doubting the local colour of 'Chains of ringlets'; plus, the text references, 'black locks of hair, twisting like snakes,' surely something reflected in the glistening piano writing:
Just to illustrate Chen's artistry, listen to how she sings the solo line at he beginning of the seventh song, 'Gunshots and smoke' (and, later in the same song, how she manages the registral challenge of the low ending):
This is a perfectly-constructed cycle in and of its own right, the final 'War' full of dolorous low tolling bells in the piano and long, melismatic linesin teh voice. Unforgettable.
Another cycle, Kabul: When I wake at midnight was written for an Afghan girl who contacted Harrison after her education, and much else, was decimated bythe arriavl of the Talban in 2021. The titles of thes little piece are taken from the girl's poems. The story is touching; as is the music. Here's the 89-second 'Lullaby,' beautifully played by McCarthy:
The Nightingales of Afghaistan is the latest in a series of 12 works inspired by Afghanistan and its people; it is dedicated to 11 'nightingales' (young women all in Kabul at the time the Taliban descended). The piece is 'illustrated' by a painting bythe young Afghan artist Shajia Azhir, called A Silent Scream (reproduced in the booklet). Scored for mixed ensemble including piano, there is a dark and magisterial beauty to Harrison's score, one that emphastically does not preclude hope:
The contrast of procesisonal gainst much more fluid lines is beautifyllty drawn, and sits in contrast tothe clear disquiet (emphasised by vocal contributions from the ensemble) later. The piece ends, in factm, with a cry ...
The Round Dances for flute and piano (Stephanie Gilbert and Tomáš Klement) offer great contrast, and for all the joy fo the first and last it is the whispered second, 'A slow, hypnotic snake dance' that I find unforgettable - and the way the performers here maintain a uniform dynamicf for long stretches is stunning:
There is a delicious simplicity to I sha'n't be gone long, inspoired by Robert Froost's poem The Pasture. Frost, a New England poet, himsef has a habit of cutting to the heart, and Harrisno's piece responds inkind, tellingly performed bu Roger Huckle and McCarthy.
The final piece on the disc is ... the people of His pasture (Scenes from the Lutterell Psalter), Harrison's response for ensemble to a 14th century manuscript that gives a detailed idea of what life might have bene like on the estate of the wealthy Lincolnshire landowner geoffrey Psalter. The five movements represent both the course of a day and the path from birth to death (even including a Judgement Day). Hrrison uses some music of the time in her piece (Alleluia Psallat from the Worcester Antihonarium, for example). The work is beautiful, often light as a feather, and often sparkles. McCarthy delivers the piano part brilliantly in the second movement, 'Day (Alleluia Psallat Haec Familia)' - there is both a sense of play, and of wit here:
There is an extra availavle online, Work Songs for the Land, five very brief mocements inspired by traditional songs of Britain and America concerning rural labour. Harrision takes both transcriptions of performances from the 1940s and melodies from Lucy Broadwood's 1893 collection of English Country Songs, while the concluding movement is a hymn (Work, for the Night is Coming). The third piece, Field Blues, is remarkably powerful:
There are a couple of presentation issues (different ways of counting the tracks between booklet and disc back cover; a mis-placeded timing on the back cover) but this remains a vitally important disc, full of humanity and compassion while remaining uncompromising in its musical delivery.