In 1926, American physicist John Redfield, while pretty much incorporating the Futurist intellectual waves of that time, wrote that the “music of any age depends upon the kind of musical instruments which that age possesses.” Showcasing his belief in the sacred nature of technology even more blatantly, he stated, on a final note, that “composers can go no further than the possibilities of the instruments for which they write.” This is, if taken literally, an overstatement. Of course there’s more to music than simply technique.
Yet, when read under a different light, Redfield’s Futuristic manifesto gains a new meaning. The spirit of the music of a given moment in time is definitely stranded by what is logistically and materially possible for one to do. This doesn’t mean a materialistic approach to music, per se, it’s just stating the obvious right there. When it comes to classical music, this stance is taken to a whole other level. This is due to the fact that it’s hard to point out a field where said instrument is as central to the narrative as it is to classical music. The violin is as overused as it is mystical. That means that, even if there is not so much room for inventiveness, there’s always space for reconstructions and, why not, beauty.
Sarah Neufeld, a longtime member of Arcade Fire, knows and takes advantage of this fact. Her music acts on the fringes of classicism ad experimentation, uniting both worlds. The Ridge, her newest album, follows a collaborative release with instrumentalist Colin Stetson, the acclaimed Never Were the Way She Was, from 2015, and her 2013 debut, Hero Brother. The album is also the best example of that initial idea in 2016. In The Ridge, Neufeld is not preoccupied with vain modernisms (as in a nihilistic move towards vague experimentalism). For the better part of it, her handling of the violin is a safe game – and, most importantly, a beautiful one.
Opener “The Ridge” shows that Neufeld aims at some sort of sonic grandness. In a way, it’s Serialism done right perhaps because her virtuosity is not the only thing keeping the song together. The violin is accompanied by a thumping beat and drone music. We begin to the hear the instrument flourish in the presence of the unknown. We witness new possibilities – for a brief moment, that is.
The Ridge is still formalistic, though – and there’s not a demerit in such a fact. For instance, just as what made the aforementioned collaborative album from last year sound so refreshing was Colin Stetson’s own sonic palette, and what kept it from falling apart out of extravaganza was precisely Neufeld’s somber presence.
Neufeld’s album seems to feed upon complicated tensions. Every moment of sonic warmth and complex melodies in the album (and here you can insert some explorations about the tonal aspects of the violin as well) we end up receiving a moment of rawness. The Ridge, as its title suggests, then, is supposed to be soundtrack a victory lap. For every second of celebration and intensity and catharsis, we have beauty as order; deeply formalistic, symmetrical classical music. This can be sensed during “A Long Awaited Scar”, a dry and propulsive track that slinks past the nine-minute mark sounding as self-congratulatory as it is gigantic. It’s a moment of technical excellence that needs little exploration, and rightfully so, because asking for it, given The Ridge’s background, would be the same as doing a critical injustice. Still, such little permissions have a limit.
Yet, this music can, at times, come off as too detached from its author – being deemed as impersonal, even. Not in the sense that The Ridge is music too big to sound emotional – believe me, it is cathartic – but rather the contrary has prevailed. Closer “When The Light Comes In” is a good example of that. When aiming at some sort of resolution – the violin here sounds both minimalistic and grand – she reached perfection. An empty kind of one.
This is why it would do some good to revisit Redfield’s words from above. Yes, to some extent, when it comes to the purely technical qualities of the music under scrutiny, we are limited by the instruments we currently have at our disposal. But the artist should be able to overcome such “difficulties”. The Ridge proves to be a competent, technically accomplished piece of work, one that is aimed at sound designers mostly. That is, there’s little here which is able to transcend such discourse. The main point under discussion is that, and this is why it is important to go back to Redfield’s work, instead of transcending the overused aspects of what classical means, Neufeld’s music is rather comforted by these alleged rules.