I was first exposed to composer Linda Catlin Smith in her release, Wanderer, which was included in Another Timbre's masterful Canadian Composers Series. I was taken by the floating lines of melody, the gravity of the waves of sound, and the vast expanses that her compositions opened. Indeed, finding such depth and expanse of the simple and the endless potential of the most basic musical elements is a hallmark of the best minimalism. Ballad, Smith's most recent release, explores similar spaces and to similar effect. Its two tracks — the 10-minute "Through the Low Hills" and the 40-minute "Ballads" — are understated, but deceptively so. They begin with brief, repeated themes that turn and warp over the course of each piece. Unlike phased and looping compositions, however, Smith gives her works room to drift beyond the confines of strict repetition. Amidst the discipline and drama resides a proclivity for a flexible lyricism and improvisation that many early minimalist composers, at least, avoid.
Smith and the two musicians who realized the scores that comprise Ballad — cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and pianist Kerry Yong — seem to relish in this mobility and room for bounded deviation. This creates harmonies that are beautiful and intimate, yet also divergent and wandering. Especially in the duo format — a piano, a cello, and nothing more — one can really hear the utter fragility of string tones from strike to sustain to entanglement and decay. What Lukoszevieze and Yong capture impeccably, however, is the quiet force that enables such exposure. This is one area wherein Smith continues to distinguish herself, as well. Her gradualism is not just about stripping a melodic core into its constituent tonal elements and reconfiguring it in moving and disorienting ways. That is part of it, of course. In that same deconstructive and compositional process, she also finds a striking muscularity. Just listen to the crescendo two-thirds of the way into the bucolic "Ballad".
As much as Ballad is about precision, concentration, and confidence in bare tones, it is also about motion and exploration. Indeed, it explores that slippery phenomenon of "being there" fully present in the moment and note and the pull towards elaboration, which threatens to break that singular focus. It starts with the simple and deliberate statement of presence, and lets the embellishments slowly develop from there. The gravity of that presence, however, reins the wandering melodies in just enough to maintain coherence. Passages drift and drag into interesting territories, but always incrementally and never so far as to lose that meditative focus.
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