Artistic ambition is one thing; to throw the arms of that ambition across a variety of musical styles is another thing entirely. Luke Cissell has not only proven to be an astute classical composer, but he also revels in styles that merely skirt that sometimes daunting genre. Cosmography, his 2013 album, was a unique mix of classical, moody synth dabbling, and the bluegrass of Cissell’s native Louisville, Kentucky. Backwoods, from 2015, was a deeper dive into the world of bluegrass. But the 2017 release of Sonata for Viola and Piano / Three Piano Pieces was proof that Cissell is comfortable within the confines of a strictly classical work.
After the genre-hopping of 2018’s brilliant Thinking/Feeling, Cissell is back with something somewhat more traditional. Which isn’t to say that there are no unpredictable surprises on String Sextets Nos. 1 & 2; in fact, one of the most impressive facets of this work is its ability to infuse subtle hints of Americana and various 20th century motifs into what sounds on the surface like a pair of traditional European chamber pieces.
As on Cissell’s previous albums, String Sextets Nos. 1 & 2 feature Cissell playing every instrument himself – two violins, two violas, and two cellos – and like his earlier works, the multi-tracking necessary for such a recording never really sounds like post-production stacking. Rather, the finished product sounds uncannily like what it’s supposed to sound like: a live sextet. Written and recorded over months, the two multi-movement works draw on a variety of diverse sources, including nursery rhyme, film noir, Berber tradition, poetic form, and steel guitars.
“String Sextet No. 1” begins with a flurry of activity. The first movement, “Full of Life”, is appropriately titled with the swift tempo rarely letting up as strings veer between manic and lightly melancholic. The impression the listener gets is that of a composer with no shortage of melodic ideas. In the “Adagio” movement that follows, Cissell easily shifts into a new atmosphere – one filled with emotional longing but not without moments of lightning speed that almost seem to betray the movement’s title.
But most movements are titled in a way that easily fits the mood. “Translation from the Berber” is a lively section filled with percussive overtones (likely accomplished by Cissell drumming on the instruments) and plenty of exotic flair. “Noir” is more adagio than the “Adagio” movement, with its inspiration likely deriving from dark, moody film noir scores. “Honky Tonk” brings Cissell’s oft-documented love for his native Kentucky musical style to the forefront, as the subtle American twang meshes nicely with the more traditional classical strings, bringing to mind the sweeping Americana of Aaron Copland.
“String Sextet No. 2” is full of whimsical interplay, with “Animal Fair” opening the piece with almost childlike playfulness. Most of the second sextet’s movements rarely let up, engaging the listener almost relentlessly, but never in a way that seems overbearing. With the movement “Crawling”, a pulse runs through everything, keeping it light but never in a watered-down, overtly “crossover” style.
While Cissell is undoubtedly a modern composer with modern sensibilities, there’s very little dissonance to be found in these sextets. There’s a degree of tension in the second sextet’s “Teething” movement, but if we’re using cinematic terms, it’s more akin to an exhilarating car chase than a scene of violent death. When the second sextet’s final movement, “Dreaming”, brings everything to a close, it’s lyrical, elegant, and deeply moving. The pace is slower, but with a bright, sunny execution. True to its title, “Dreaming” evokes lazy imagery that can be pleasant and relaxing but also a little thrilling.
It’s not surprising that Cissell is a 2018-19 New York Philharmonic Very Young Composers Teaching Artist at Manhattan’s P.S. 108 School of Authors in East Harlem. The music he composes and performs has the distinct air of an artist with a deep knowledge of music history while remaining very much committed to the music of the present and future. Whether he’s laying down bluegrass, twiddling synthesizer knobs, or constructing chamber music, Luke Cissell is a musician’s musician.