Musician/composer Luke Cissell has carved out a unique space for his art. While his compositions (and performances) bring to mind the bold, idiosyncratic feel of the Kronos Quartet or John Zorn, he seems irresistibly drawn to worlds miles outside of traditional –and non-traditional – classical and jazz music.
And that’s a relief. For all its fiery ambition, iconoclastic bent and dissonant note clusters, the current climate of classical music can always use a youthful shot in the arm. Luke Cissell is up to the task; in fact, the Kentucky native has been at it for several years with a handful of highly-regarded releases to show for it. Two relatively recent albums are a somewhat accurate barometer of his wide compositional range. In 2013 he released Cosmography, a puzzling yet completely engaging album that managed to combine bluegrass and classical with heavy-yet-tasteful helpings of synthesizers. It’s as if Chris Thile returned from a trip to outer space to make an album with Yo-Yo Ma. Last year’s Suite for Viola and Piano / Three Piano Pieces was a decidedly more traditional affair, but as usual, Cissell he managed to bring his unique stamp to the affair.
Cissell’s latest album, Thinking /Feeling, falls somewhere between the two aforementioned releases. He’s not afraid to drop in a synthesizer or chunky electric piano riff into a lively chamber piece. Complex bass lines dance around busy string arrangements. You can even dance to some of this.
While it may seem like he sprung out of nowhere, Cissell has been at this for practically his entire life – a bluegrass fiddling champion at the age of eight, he performed Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto on his first honors recital soon afterward. Upon earning a history degree from Princeton, he established himself as a professional musician and composer in New York City. His session work includes gigs with artists varying from Ingrid Michaelson to Philip Glass, and he’s also a 2017-18 Very Young Composers Teaching Artist with the New York Philharmonic.
On Thinking/Feeling, Cissell plays all the instruments himself (save for Christo Logan’s cello on “Las Meninas”) and it’s a testament to his skill that he’s not only able to take on this Herculean task, but he does so in such a way that the meshing of the instruments feels like a real ensemble and never hints at the obvious overdubbing process. The opening track “Follies”, for instance, gracefully moves back and forth between a bold, dramatic string ensemble and a more low-key interplay of bass, mandolin, and synthesizers. It moves swiftly into the next track, “Exiel”, which has a similar feel to its predecessor, but with a bolder intensity.
The songs on Thinking/Feeling have a complex, often dizzying feel, but unlike most modern classical music, it somehow doesn’t come off as intimidating. In fact, one of the overarching themes here is playfulness. “Horse Dream” is an example of a composition stuffed with great ideas, with engaging, memorable melodies that seem hopeful and welcoming. “World Without End”, Cissell’s contribution to the New York Philharmonic New World Initiative, sounds like a segment of a string ensemble/synthesizer science fiction film score with bits of synthpop thrown in for good measure. The warmth of the synths combines with the aching beauty of the strings, and when those strings go off on hyper-fast flights of fancy, the effect is never one of cold detachment.
Cissell goes off the beaten path the furthest with “Serf Shop”, a deeply melodic ballad that dives into surf music, with a twangy guitar lead out in front, sounding not unlike Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks work. It’s haunting and authentic without a trace of gimmicky kitsch. Likewise, on “Pavane”, the knotty string arrangement is accompanied by space-age effects that move in and out of the recording but never overstay their welcome. Tracks like this live comfortably alongside more traditional – yet no less engaging – pieces like “Wodwos”, sounding very much like the string quartets of Bartok (if Bartok decided to add a bit of mandolin and bass here and there).
Luke Cissell is probably most often considered a “classical” composer and performer, and that’s certainly not inaccurate. But it does his work a disservice to assign this restless musical experimenter such a limited categorization. On Thinking/Feeling, there’s also world music, folk, jazz, bits of pop, and a variety of things that can’t even be classified. If he’s molding young minds through the New York Philharmonic, the future is very bright indeed.