Monday, February 8, 2016

Classical Music for the Modern Ear

Laura Sullivan, Feast of Joy and Love

Okay, honesty time: I cringed inwardly when I saw this album’s opening track featured a medley of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Minuet in G,” two of the most over-performed pieces of Baroque music. They’re usually played in bloodless styles completely lacking Bach’s devotion, especially at weddings. But Laura Sullivan immediately plays “Jesu” by mixing her piano and spare orchestration with an Enya-like wordless chorus that pushes an overplayed piece in new directions.

Following her Grammy Award for her 2013 album Love's River, composer/pianist Laura Sullivan has begun vigorously re-releasing her prior independent New Age albums. But calling her music “New Age” feels dismissive, like comparing it to those studiously inoffensive albums of piano and Hammond organ music my parents played every holiday dinner. Sullivan’s music sounds different, more enterprising, like an attempt to create mature, sophisticated pop for grown-up audiences. Her strangely introspective arrangements succeed well.

Sullivan’s careful orchestration resembles current chamber pop stars like Bon Iver or The Decembrists. But she approaches her sound from the opposite direction: rather than creating Top 40-friendly pop that mines the best baroque sounds, she crafts listenable classical music that incorporates pop breeziness. Her music will sound charmingly familiar to anybody versed in pre-Mozart classical sounds. Not that she limits herself, though. Her uncluttered arrangements include hints of Latin, Celtic, and other world musics.

Besides Bach, Sullivan repurposes works by Beethoven, Albinoni, and the anonymous classic “Greensleeves.” This in addition to her original compositions, which don’t necessarily ascend in the strictly classical manner. Her best works, like the Cape Breton-infused “Shalaelah” or the transnational “Café des Artistes,” have a Philip Glass character, based on recognition of patterns rather than development of themes. Her Greensleeves arrangement exemplifies this effect, carrying motifs from piano to voice and back, frequently in near-harmony.

Laura Sullivan
Piano drives these tracks, which makes an interesting change from many single-artist New Age recordings. Though the notes indicate Sullivan uses digital samples to bolster her acoustic instruments, she doesn’t rely upon synth and electronics to create her music—mercifully enough since that usually only sounds good in garage rock. She supports her music by multi-tracking her vocals (and her husband Eric), sometimes incorporating strings and saxophone for increased richness. But she remains committedly acoustic.

This combination of theme-driven arrangements and spare instrumentation permits Sullivan some moments of surprising clarity. In “Pinot Noir,” for instance, Sullivan cedes lead to saxophonist Noel Jewkes, whose steady jazz progressions overlay Sullivan’s piano and barely audible brushes on percussion. (Sullivan uses some percussion, but mainly lets her left hand establish the groove.) This track is the closest Sullivan comes to out-and-out melancholy, yet she makes it feel like a mere breather on the road.

As the title suggests, Sullivan maintains a primarily positive attitude throughout this album, with works mainly in common and waltz time, with easygoing tempos you could slow-dance or stir-fry to. Nothing sufficiently Bolero-like for risqué business, sorry. But for the preliminaries, for holding hands while watching the sunset or cooking dinner on an open fire, Sullivan’s music provides not just a mindless background, but an actual tempo, a useful and pleasurable groove for shared movement.

In some ways, Laura Sullivan represents what’s possible for musicians who embrace modern technology. Not only does she have creative control enough over her music to create a sound she wants, independent distribution through her private label ensures her personal guidance continues over her work. Like the more mainstream Ani DiFranco, Sullivan has a level of artistic autonomy little seen since early recordings displaced traditional troubadours. Perhaps music has now returned to the originating musicians.

Except, if Sullivan hadn’t solicited this review personally, I might never have discovered her sound. My adolescent prejudices against New Age music would’ve kept me from trying this album even if I’d encountered it somewhere. The means of creating music have devolved to individual musicians, but the means of publicizing remain tenaciously owned by the Big Five media conglomerates. How can musicians assert control over their music, if curious listeners like me never hear them?

Laura Sullivan creates a “lite classical” sound nuanced enough that a part-time snob like me can approach her sound without feeling talked down to. But her spare arrangements and vernacular piano invite pop audiences to participate in her journey too. Her sounds, which range from Gregorian austerity to celebratory sophistication, bring committed listeners on a journey, or if you’d rather listen with half an ear, she buoys your mood. Sullivan wants to restore your soul.

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