Eyes shut, leaves
Lift in winds across
Soft rain falls
At night, still
Cloud sighs, clear blue sky,
Breeze turns warm
Eyes look to sunset
“Songs of Love and Loss” is the first solo record by Emmanual Witzhtum for Eilean records and follows on from the E and I release (aka Emmanuel + Craig Tattersall) released by the label last year. Not since his last release under his own name has Witzthum’s work as violist taken center stage the way it does on ‘Songs…’. And with that focus Witzthum creates what is probably his most harrowing and immediate work.
Across its four compositions, ‘Songs…’ is an album that continues to invite the listener into its own narrative. The opener, “Eyes shut, Leaves. Lift in winds across. Autumn skies”, slowly draws the listener in. Quiet at first, the music is like waking up to find yourself alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean wondering how you got there. As a listener, you are both at the mercy of its ebb and flow, each wave rising – but also there is something intrinsically hypnotic about those same motions. It is mournful, cinematic, and not to mention, emotionally exhausting. If this were the score to a film, this would serve as the film’s final moments where the protagonist has lost it all and we the viewer have lost it all right along with him/her. For most artists, this opening composition would serve as an entire album’s worth of emotional ups and downs, but ‘Songs…’ is just getting started. And Witzthum can pull it off because he controls the movement of his narrative masterfully.
“Soft rain falls. Winter solitude. At night, still” is the second piece in Witzthum’s haiku/elegy. And its title is apropos: although still mournful, there is a sense of calmness (the ‘still’ ness to it) that makes it less turbulent than its predecessor. But Witzthum employs this technique of creating this rhythmic pulse that sits under the whole piece giving it an almost drone-like quality despite the lack of the electronic tendencies usually associated with that genre label. But what he does over that rhythmic pulse is to inject these musical phrases that can move from mournful to mysterious to sinister in the matter of a few bars. It all combines to create a piece that’s breathlessly engaging and moving while also quietly unsettling.
“Shy flowers. Cloud sighs, clear blue sky. Breeze turns warm” is the third piece and it too has a rhythmic heartbeat of sparse, gentle phrases that carry it forward. And similarly, the movement of the piece comes for the sparse pieces of punctuation that weave in and out above that base. The difference here is that those lead pieces are characterized by a quiet optimism slowly coming into focus. It also introduces the sound of the human voice into the album’s palette. There are no words just basic non-verbal sounds which despite the lack of words sound somehow deliberately pleasant.
“Against tree. Eyes look to sunset. In summer” is the album closer and it continues the quiet bloom into re-birth. And, fittingly, the album’s titles have cycled through the seasons: fall, winter, spring (by implication), and now summer. But despite its optimism, there is still something mournful about the tone of the piece – as if something has been lost never to be found again. But it implies a deeper theme: human resilience. Late in the piece, human voice once again enters with some quiet ‘do’ sounds to punctuate the music.
Sonically and poetically, the title ‘Songs of Love and Loss’ seems almost backwards: the more fitting title if one were to follow the emotional narrative of the album in the most literal trajectory would have been to call it ‘Songs of Loss and Love’. But that literal trajectory would ignore the more ambitious aspects of Witzthum’s deeper intent: to capture the cyclical nature of our emotional lives when played out against a backdrop of 4 seasons, each benchmarking the forward trajectory of our lives and the quiet evolutions that can occur from one autumn to the next. And upon repeat listens, that opening piece and Witzthum’s ability to really drag his listener become more awe-inspiring. Witzthums deeply humanistic voice recalls the ability of Krzyztof Kieslowski’s in that he is able to be both deeply personal and grandly cinematic. “Songs of Love and Loss” is a sunning listen and a great achievement for Witzthum as an artist. It should be on everyone’s “do-not-miss” list for 2018.