Review of Centre Bridge by Robert Carl

Frances White (b. 1960) writes a very precise and personal sort of electroacoustic music, but one whose innate lyricism and humility never allows the technology to show off. She seems to base her practice on the intense aural observation of place, and the absorption of that environment into her very fiber. Out of that osmosis pieces emerge.

The oldest work on the disk (1992) is Walk through “Resonant landscape” No. 2. It was originally an installation that allowed a listener/observer to indicate a point on a computer controlled map, which would in turn lead to a series of sounds keyed to the locations on explored. The results are subtle. At times there are gorgeous, unaltered natural sounds, like a flight of geese. At other times, the natural sounds are filtered into a dreamlike collection of flickers and drones, often transformed so far as to seem purely electronic. This version is a recording of one of these walks, since annotator James Pritchett indicates the technology for the interactive realization of the piece is now completely obsolete.

Centre Bridge is the title of this album, and of two pieces on the collection. It is—as Pritchett's lucid notes relate—a nondescript bridge crossing the Delaware between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. White listened to the drones that emerged from the bridge's structure as cars passed over, combined it with the natural sounds of the water underneath, and from this created a sonic backdrop against which she could draw the lines of the acoustic instruments' parts. The two Centre Bridge(s) are for shakuhachi duo (Japanese bamboo flute) and string quintet, from 1999 and 2001, respectively. The first emphasizes the structural drone, the second the water. Both reach points of gentle rapture, the former as a sort of Japanese expressionism, the latter more in the spirit of French Impressionism. Like the lily (1999) suffuses the music for its string duo with aspects of the plainchant Alleluia: Justus germinabit. As it proceeds, the electroacoustic part brings the sweeping sounds of wind and rain into the texture, and the effect is truly dreamlike and refreshing. The fit between the acoustic and recorded sounds is unexpected, and yet totally right. A veil barely seen (2000) is an extended rhapsodic meditation for viola over the sound of water, and latter of which is slowly unmasked to reveal ever more rich and dramatic sounds. It is as though a percussion ensemble slowly materializes from the mists.

This sense of a music derived from the environment suggests the approach of composers like Annea Lockwood or Pauline Oliveros, but White is also still very committed to sweeping, more traditionally lyrical musical gestures. So one ends up with a very personal and uncategorizable blend of the classical and experimental in her work. Some may feel the blend isn't pure enough for their taste, but I love the way it stretches across these boundaries. And everything is guided by a very sure and focused taste. It's scrupulous. And it also bespeaks much tenderness.

The performances all seem exquisite. I can't help but give particular praise to the shakuhachi playing of Elizabeth Brown, who plays both parts of the duo via multitracking; she's one of the real American virtuosos of the instrument, and as anyone who might reference earlier reviews I've written of her own music in Fanfare will note, a comparably strong and original composer.

Ultimately this is a release that brings deep pleasures, but they sneak up on you. White is a voice from which I'll anticipate future releases.

Robert Carl