This latest full-length from NY-based composer/multi-instrumentalist Lea Bertucci features two longform Just Intonation commissions composed for small ensembles. Given that, it is no surprise that Of Shadow and Substance is a unique album within her discography, but the added participants and the non-standard tuning were not the only new elements, as Bertucci embraced a "textural approach to composition" as well.
The results are quite unique and compelling, as Bertucci and her collaborators nimbly avoided any missteps or predictable decisions to produce a shapeshifting and emotionally intense drone album like no other. In fact, even Bertucci herself was a bit surprised with how Of Shadow and Substance turned out, as she notes that these two pieces feel informed by a "sense of deep, ancestral knowing" beyond herself as an individual, which seems like a valid and insightful claim, given that she shared the driver's seat with both ancient mathematical relationships and textural affinities and was also inherently prevented from falling back on any familiar scales or melodies. Ladies and gentlemen, Lea Bertucci has just crossed over into The Twilight Zone (or at least into releasing a killer album that borrows its title from that show's introduction).
The opening "Vapours" was commissioned and performed by Italy's Quartetto Maurice and was partially inspired by the dual meaning of the title (the elusive/precarious physical state and the "pseudo-scientific term to diagnose types of hysteria in women"). The musicians were instructed to visualize both meanings during their semi-improvisations and Bertucci's hand is additionally felt through her control of "the sonic space" through "subtle processing and spatial mixing." More importantly, it is one hell of a piece, as it gradually transforms from sensuously seething and simmering drones and whines into a visceral and heaving crescendo. Both halves are fascinating and beautifully executed and I especially enjoyed the spiraling intensity near the end, which calls to mind a swirling supernatural flock of birds. Moreover, there is plenty to appreciate in the details as well, as the various instruments enigmatically and organically "blur and coalesce into one entity, drifting from consonance to discordance in harmonic clusters." Few things reliably delight me more than incredibly sophisticated compositions that feel like spontaneous living entities that just miraculously sprang into being.
The following title piece for double bass, cello, harp, percussion and electronics was commissioned by the Philadelphia-based ARS Nova Workshop. The presence of percussion is the most immediately obvious difference between the two pieces, but the first half of "Of Shadow and Substance" is also quite a bit more groaning and convulsive than its predecessor. Given that prickly nature, it took me a little longer to warm to it, but it certainly features some sublime passages of its own. Bertucci's inspiration for the piece was "the accumulation of events over glacial periods of time as a metaphor for social and environmental shifts," which she evoked by mixing "loops and layers fragments of the performance in real-time, resulting in a diffuse, swirling, self-referential mass of experience." While it may sound a bit academic on paper, the reality is quite churning and physical, as the ensemble unleashes an inventive miasma of shudders, whines, moans, and squeals en route to an unexpectedly haunting final act that feels like viscous waves lapping at the shore of charred ruins (a fine way to end an album, I'd say). Of the two pieces, I still consider "Vapours" to be the album's clear centerpiece, yet Bertucci is in especially inspired form for the entirety of this album and Of Shadow and Substance may very well be one of her strongest releases to date.