Music

Sarah Pagé's 'Dose Curves' Reinvents a 5,000-Year-Old Instrument

Photo: Linus Ouellette / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

Dose Curves is the debut solo album from accomplished Canadian harpist, Sarah Pagé, and it's nothing short of spellbinding.

Dose Curves
Sarah Pagé

Backward Music

11 October 2019

The harp dates back to as early as 3500 B.C. While the instrument has informed a vast array of musical genres in the ensuing centuries, what it sounds like in the hands of Sarah Pagé is a revelation for even the most jaded listener. The Montreal-based harpist was a founding member of the indie-folk band, the Barr Brothers. She also spent time performing with Canadian artists such as Leif Vollebekk, Patrick Watson, Jerusalem in My Heart, as well as Cairo-based musician Nadah El Shazly, among others. Dose Curves, however, is her first bona fide solo album, and listening to the album, one gets the impression of a brilliant, determined musician freed from the sometimes shackled nature of collaboration.

The time Pagé spent collaborating with other artists proved to be extremely fruitful, as the intense practice, recording, and touring required during those productive years helped prepare her for this ambitious artistic statement. Dose Curves sees Pagé wringing a seemingly endless amount of possibilities out of this venerated instrument. In addition to a bass pickup of her design, Pagé uses fans, bows, pedals, and meticulous amplification techniques to achieve the album's unique sound.

While divided into five tracks, Dose Curves has the feel of one complete piece. That's partly due to the lack of silence between tracks. Although each track evokes a different mood and style. The opening title track rides along on a mesmerizing drone, with the sustaining notes seemingly at odds with what one might imagine from conventional harp music. Refreshingly, nothing about this album is conventional. While drones can lead to a feeling of relaxation and meditation, Pagé insists on moving the track through more unsettling moments where strings clash, and distortion weaves in and out.

"Stasis" is inspired by the playing of acclaimed slide guitarist Freddy Koella, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, Dr. John, and Pagé herself. To accomplish Koella's sound, Pagé incorporated a slide on the harp's strings. While one hears the plucking of strings for the first time after the drone and distortion of the title track, the harp's similarity to guitar playing is initially jarring and eventually a deeply satisfying experience. Pagé has described "Stasis" as "a song I wrote for comfort. It's about finding a gentle way to settle into immobility when you have no other choice."

Conversely, "Lithium Taper" is a strong departure from "Stasis" in that it owes a great deal to the electric organ, albeit a heavily treated one. The "strobe" effect that runs through the song gives Pagé's harp the feel of ambient electronic music, while bass notes provide a comforting anchor. Pagé swings effortlessly into a far more traditional sound on "Ephemeris Data" with a more conventional harp style at play at first. But delay effects and an impressively furious attack on the instrument keeps the arrangement unique and not at all dull or predictable.

Dose Curves closes with "Pleiades", another track that depends somewhat on droning, but with a more ethereal, almost free-floating aura. Pagé's harp flutters above the sustained notes before the song transforms, and more frantic notes take over, resembling something like a raga. It's as if In a Silent Way morphed into a Ravi Shankar improvisational piece.

Sarah Pagé crams a stunning amount of variety into the roughly 40 minutes of music on Dose Curves. When one begins to listen to the album, it seems out of place and oddly foreign, like an unfamiliar language. But once you spend even a brief amount of time in the world of her music, you might not want to leave.

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