“Quaking Aspen” is a name for the deciduous North American tree officially known as populus tremuloides, and its quaking or trembling leaves is due to its flexible flattened leafstalks. As a jumping-off point for the debut solo album of a startlingly gifted soprano, it may be an odd choice, but Stephanie Lamprea’s new album is refreshingly far from a typical work of art.
Lamprea, an accomplished vocalist and educator, specializes in contemporary classical repertoire, using her coloratura voice as a mechanism of avant-garde performance art. Her voice can express traditional operatic methods but often takes the form of sputters, throat noises, and other modern techniques. With Quaking Aspen, she uses her ample talents to interpret poetry and prose that spans decades with the aid of a variety of composers.
The opening track is a bit of an outlier; composer Jason Eckardt’s “Populus Tremuloides: Quaking Aspen” is a wordless soundscape meant to represent the trembling of these trees in the Catskill Mountains. Lamprea dives into the composition with groaning, hissing, buzzing, trilling, and full-throated operatic vocalizing. It’s a disarming piece of music but manages to pull off the unusual trick of bringing nature to vibrant life.
Following the first track, Quaking Aspen takes on a specific structure: William Bond narrates a poem, followed by a composer’s musical interpretation, sung by Lamprea. These interpretations take on a variety of forms. Donna Masini’s poem “Water Lilies I” (taken from her collection 4:30 Movie) is given an ethereal treatment by composer Kurt Rohde, as Lamprea uses long, drawn-out notes and is aided by a variety of effects such as deep, cavernous reverb, and claustrophobic compression. This kind of back-and-forth in the treatment of Lamprea’s voice gives off the striking feeling of multiple characters interpreting the poetry.
Sometimes, however, the source material comes from an unusual place. “Bathing” is based on Lucy Corin’s short story in the collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. Lamprea recites Corin’s words basically verbatim and, as directed by Wang Lu’s composition, stretches out the words, sings them, shouts them, and even screams. The story was inspired by the COVID pandemic, which likely accounts for Lamprea’s manic tone.
One of the best-known poets represented on Quaking Aspen is Edith Wharton, whose “An Autumn Sunset” is broken down into a two-song cycle composed by George N. Gianopoulos. Like a great deal of this fascinating record, Lamprea dives into atonal revelations while infusing the piece with stunning coloratura passages.
But one of the stunning highlights of Quaking Aspen is “Mid-Day”, based on the poem of the same name by Hilda Doolittle (who was published under H.D.). Hannah Selin’s composition for soprano and electronics has Lamprea experimenting with coloratura methods alongside clapping and slapping actions with a droning loop underneath it all, recalling a medieval chant atmosphere. This type of combination gives the impression of the spanning of centuries as if Hildegard Von Bingen were collaborating with Amirtha Kidambi. The composition’s adventurous and sometimes foreboding nature is a perfect match for the source material, as H.D.’s poem equates nature with cycles of death and rebirth.
Quaking Aspen is an unusual yet fascinating, deeply enjoyable work of art and can be compared to difficult-to-interpret postmodern tomes. Like the dense novels of William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon, enjoyment of it requires a particular frame of mind, but once it clicks, Quaking Aspen is a magical, intense, and deeply satisfying journey.