There is an air of claustrophobia and looming dread which permeates the whole of cellist and avant-garde composer Julia Kent’s latest release, Asperities. Throughout, she layers her primary instrument to create a one-woman chamber orchestra built on drones and the evocation of specific moods rather than an over-reliance on melody and rhythm. Instead, this approach to minimalism built largely upon drones and tonal shading, owes more to ambient music than the traditional classical music framework within which the cello is most often employed.
That said, Kent’s compositional approach is clearly rooted in that of modern classical composers and minimalists who relied on drones to create a sort of proto-ambient approach to contemporary classical music that has influence a generation of not only 21st century classical composers and performers, but also electronic musicians working in synth textures and the use of found sound. Kent, then, serves as a sort of link between the two, adopting elements of each to create a sound that takes cues from the past but looks ever forward.
Consisting primarily of Kent’s multi-tracked cello and minimal electronics, Asperities plays with its melancholic minimalism and drones to create an emotional push-pull effect that ultimately proves wildly unsettling. On “Terrain”, in particular, electronic drums propel the Jaws-esque cellos along in a manner most disconcerting. While the music itself is often devastatingly beautiful, it is not without its share of darkened corners.
Throughout, the majority of Kent’s largely minor-key melodic figures consist of long, drawn out notes designed to evoke a particular mood and feeling. She rarely deviates from this basic structural premise, however when she does, as on “Empty States” with its distorted cello lead line, it is done to massive effect. Built largely upon sustained drones, these sudden bursts of rhythm and melody prove breathtaking, causing the album to explode following long passages of simmering tension.
Just as quickly, however, Kent brings things back to a slow boil, allowing for relative calm to take hold before the next bout of extreme tonal and dynamic shifts. It’s in this schizophrenic compositional approach that Kent excels in commingling beauty with an overwhelming sense of dread. Case in point: immediately following the whiplash of “Empty States”, Kent eases back into the lovely “Heavy Eyes”, employing a languid melody full of sustained notes and subtle dissonance to ease the listener back from the edge and into a wary reprieve.
Relying primarily on her bow throughout, Kent’s use of plucked passages on “Invitation to the Voyage” help to break up some of the stylistic monotony that tends to overpower much of Asperities. This addition of a rhythmic, slightly percussive feel helps to offset her arco passages, adding another layer upon which she can build her minimalist compositions. In this, it plays as a sort of slowed-down version of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” hitting a similar mood without the major-key release afforded by Baber’s popular composition. And while this perhaps seems too obvious or offensive (to purists) of a comparison, it holds up in Kent’s attempt to tap into the listener’s emotions in a manner similar to Barber’s.
Saving her most dynamic performance for last, closing track “Tramontana” distills the whole of the album into a mere four minutes. Here, low, simmering strings utilize minor harmonies while effected string bursts coruscate high above. Somewhere in the middle, frantic bowed passages heighten the overall level of anxiety, pushing the sound to its extreme before settling into a final crescendo that simply fades into the abyss. It’s a haunting moment that serves to perfectly encapsulate the dark beauty that is Asperities.
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