Whereas the previous release I heard from Lea Bertucci, 2016’s “Axis/Atlas”, was a fine tape and electronics affair, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air” sees the composer and sound artist returning to acoustic instruments (she is also an accomplished bass clarinettist). The album features two roughly half-hour pieces for pairs of strings — one for viola and cello along with tape collage, another for two double basses — documenting work for live performance that integrates the performance space into the music in contrasting ways.
‘The Cepheid Variations’ takes its name from a type of star that fluctuates periodically in light output, and the first section’s cycles of quiet-excited-quiet could certainly be related to this stellar phenomenon. However, the tendency for the two stringed instruments to stay very close to one another in pitch, then veer apart before coinciding again, made me think of two birds chasing each other from tree to tree, spiralling and freewheeling, melting into each other and into the golden air. About halfway through, a piercing wailing climbs up and down, spiralling ever higher until it disappears into a cloud of metallic gleaming crystals, a rainstorm of metal rain. It’s only at this point that it occurred to me, listening back, that many of the sounds I attributed to viola and cello could in fact have come from the live tape collage.
‘Double Bass Crossfade’ is a two-channel stereo reduction of a 10-channel live performance in which two double bassists start at opposite corners of a very large room, and gradually swap sides to end in each other’s starting position. All the time, the sounds of their instruments are being routed through different speakers according to their position. If this sounds difficult to reduce to stereo, then the results I heard would seem to prove you right: although I thought I heard some movement around the stereo field, more forwards and backwards rather than side to side, I couldn’t perceive any coherent narrative to this movement, yet alone any kind of ‘crossfade’.
As the piece seems to rely critically for its sense of structure on its unfolding in physical space, the stereo version ends up sounding, to my ears, a bit flat and relentless in its abrasive, jarring cacophony. This isn’t helped by the lack of variation in the material performed by the bassists, which restricts itself to the two flavours of long repeated tones and rapid sliding up and down in pitch. The ingredients are all there for an immersive, gripping surround-sound experience — and this is no doubt what was experienced by listeners at the live concert — but as a recording intended for home listening it hasn’t yet clicked for me. The compelling, resonant aerobatics of ‘The Cepheid Variations’ remain proof of how, under the right conditions, Bertucci’s music can really sing.