A composer collaboration between Adam Wiltzie (founder of Stars of the Lid) and Los Angeles-based composer Dustin O’Halloran (a founding member of Dévics), A Winged Victory for the Sullen have established themselves – since the release of their 2011 self-titled debut album – as neoclassical/ambient composers alongside Max Richter, Tim Hecker, and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Subsequent albums such as Atomos and The Undivided Five have further solidified their reputations. But it was a commission by the Manchester International Festival that resulted in their latest and perhaps most ambitious work.
Invisible Cities was composed as the music for the 90-minute multimedia stage show of the same name, loosely inspired by Italo Calvino’s 1972 similarly titled novel. The production, which included a mix of theatre, music, dance, design, and visuals, was originally conceived as a touring project with its last performance in Brisbane, Australia, before COVID-19 forced the production to shut down.
While we cannot currently witness the show’s visual aspects, Wiltzie and O’Halloran’s music is now readily available as their latest album, and the results are gorgeous and often breathtaking. Their collective experience in film and television scoring is certainly evident here. Wiltzie has scored multiple film projects, including American Woman, Salero, The Yellow Birds, and Whitney (the estate-approved documentary of the late Whitney Houston). O’Halloran has composed music for numerous film and television projects, including Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy and his Emmy-winning theme music for the Amazon series Transparent. Invisible Cities continues in this vein, with results that are mostly ethereal and ambient in nature.
We can make obvious comparisons with the neoclassical likes of Max Richter, another composer who manages to fuse classical with ambient, as well as the recent scores of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. On the opening track, “So That the City Can Begin to Exist”, an orchestral drone is punctuated by deliberate, dramatic piano chords (reminiscent of “Hand Covers Bruise”, Reznor and Ross’ opening-credit composition for The Social Network). The piece eases the listener into the album in a way that is both soothing and full of gravitas. But “The Celestial City” introduces choral elements and muted horns that suggest something more majestic and ethereal, even as gently pulsing beats and distortion give it a slightly more contemporary feel.
While gently soothing drones occupy much of Invisible Cities, there is a slightly more traditional approach, instrumentally on songs like “Nothing of the City Touches the Earth”. It begins with a minimally adorned organ and is soon accompanied by tense, arpeggiated strings. Soon the piece evolves into a bit of proto-minimalism, not unlike early Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Wiltzie and O’Halloran seem to be tipping their collective hats to ambient pioneers in this brief, dramatic performance. “Thirteenth Century Travelogue”, on the other hand, favors a more percussive, effects-steeped approach, with an insistent pulse that suggests a helicopter or reverb-drenched wind. “Despair Dialogue” is another fuzzy, almost post-rock piece, with lumbering chords immersed in distortion, more atmospheric than melodic.
For a collection of compositions meant to accompany dancers and an assortment of visuals, Invisible Cities seems to lack the frenetic pacing that such a commission may require. But the album is nonetheless an inspiring and often invigorating experience and will likely guarantee more multimedia projects of this variety. A Winged Victory for the Sullen hope to tour around the world later this year, with plans for Hong Kong, Kuwait, and London performances. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen in age of COVID. But in the meantime, this album will do nicely.