Open space can be a beautiful thing. Setting aside connotations of emptiness and isolation, there’s something wonderful in how it provides contrast in an overwhelming world or its potentials for being filled or shaped in ways as yet unknown.
For producer Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, three-dimensional space is a medium that is central to the message of his compositions, always prominent, always pivotal. For legendary tenor saxophonist and John Coltrane disciple Pharoah Sanders, outer space is the place. His is an undeniably celestial body of work, linking the personal and spiritual to the cosmic through his avant-garde style of jazz.
Perhaps it’s this reverence for the power of the expansive that makes Shepherd and Sanders such a dynamic combination on Promises, their breathtaking collaboration with each other and the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in 2020, space was critically important to the making of the 46-minute-long continuous piece. Following social distancing protocols, orchestra members were seated far apart from one another, their collective performance caught by over one hundred microphones.
The result is sublime. Masters of space that they are, Shepherd and Sanders are in no rush as Promises begins with the first iteration of a starry, synthesized motif that recurs throughout. When Sanders’ sax arrives, it billows, a mist of long, legato notes. As they start to pick up the pace, the orchestra’s strings add heavenly heights that take gradual turns for the eerie as Sanders climbs. Sliding electronic touches and layers of keys point the way to free-floating change. The piece morphs, making room to spotlight the warmth of Sanders’ vocables and standout cello and violin soloists as the performers build subtly toward the midpoint. As it arrives, the strings grow louder and more dramatic, spiraling up to vertiginous and electronically enhanced peaks before dropping back beneath the soothing whisper of Sanders’ sax.
From here, Sanders’ signature attunement to and amplification of the breath adds a source of human life to Shepherd’s extraterrestrial melodies, the two of them moving in accelerating orbits that circulate through and sonically fill the entire imagined room. Set in relation to one another, they ebb, flow, grow, and fall away to return in ways that feel physically inevitable. These are two artists bound to each other by gravitational fields of their own making.
As the piece comes to a close, its energy begins to build once more by way of Shepherd’s many keyboards. Just as the Hammond is about to overflow, though, Shepherd pulls it all back, letting its memory linger for a full minute of silence, after which a block of strings sound in the distance in a brief, thrilling finale. Promises is a genius work, a victory for slow release and the spacious. Sanders sounds as much ahead of his time as ever, while Floating Points again proves the efficacy of well-executed minimalism. For Promises to employ the London Symphony Orchestra as it does gives it the airiest of foundations. This piece has earned an audience who can stay silent, not simply in deference to Western art music conventions, but because every moment of it deserves to be fully heard.