purnima cantaloupe singh

Alex Groves 
Trace I for violin and live electronics (2021)
Rakhi Singh (b. 1982)
Sabkha for multi-tracked violin
Emily Hall (b. 1978)
Outshifts I, II and III for violin and vocoder (2020)
Michael Gordon (b. 1956)
Tinge for three amplified violins and audio playback (2004)
Light is Calling for amplified violin and audio playback (2004)
Julia Wolfe (b. 1958), arr. Rakhi SinghLAD for violin and electronics (2007/2022)
Rakhi Singh (violin and voice)
rec. Iceland, UK, dates unspecified
Cantaloupe CA21193 [44]

Rakhi Singh, a violinist and composer, is arguably best known as one of the co-founders of the excellent new-music ensemble Manchester Collective. Their adventurous programming and high-octane performances have earned rave reviews, enthusiastic young audiences and even a couple of gigs at the BBC Proms over recent years. They may be the nearest thing we currently have in the UK to New York’s ensemble Bang on a Can. It is a neat arrangement: the disc – on Bang on a Can’s own house label – combines works by Singh and her two British contemporaries with pieces by BoaC stalwarts, husband and wife Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe.

Alex Groves is a Novello award nominee whose music straddles classical, electronic and ambient forms. He wrote Trace I, an attractive study in texture, for Rakhi Singh. He layers minute and intricate variants of tuning and timbre to create an immersive backcloth of pulsing string tone. As the piece proceeds, the listener becomes more aware of Singh’s gentle yet vivid glissandi, and of their seemingly imperceptible integration into the sound image via live electronic processing. It is one of those pieces where apparent surface inactivity is completely illusory. A lot is going on underneath, and its six minutes absolutely fly by. 

I have seen the promotional literature that accompanies the release of Purnima (“She who is the full moon”, according to a lonely inscription in the album’s artwork). Singh’s own brief but luxuriant piece Sabkha has been described as “a stirring stream-of-consciousness foray into signal processing and multi-tracking for violin”. It is hard to disagree. The opening rapid arpeggi superficially resemble those heard at the beginning of the violin and piano version of Arvo Pärt’s ubiquitous Fratres. The sound image here, however, rapidly expands into a virtual chamber of immersive sepulchral resonance, whose enchantment is further enhanced by Singh’s pure and wordless vocalise. It turns out that Sabkha was something of an afterthought for the album. It only emerged after Singh happened upon a sequence of attractive shapes during an improv session, which she then developed via multi-tracking.

Emily Hall’s three-movement set Outshift plays upon the overlaps and intersections between the man-made, urban environment (represented here by Hall’s use of a vocoder to synthesise her own vocal stylings) and the natural world (as illustrated by Singh’s violin). Hall explains that she encountered the word outshifts in Lost Words, the beautiful illustrated ‘spellbook’ by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris. The term apparently refers to the hinterlands at the edges around and between built-up settlements. The emphasis these two elements give is cleverly varied in the three movements. The gentle pulsing at the outset is seamlessly absorbed into a sequence that blends a lyricism which is either folky or urban, or both. The simplicity of Hall’s ideas is embedded within a more sophisticated aural sheen which moves demonstrably towards melancholy in the third and final panel.

It is an observation, not a criticism, but I suspect innocent listeners will readily distinguish between the American and British voices on this disc, with or without a tracklist to hand. Nor am I suggesting that this is either a boon or a hindrance. After all, the album triumphantly exceeds the sum of its discrete parts, thanks of course to Rakhi Singh’s magnificently incisive and colourful playing. It also helps if one can plan such a varied and interesting programme over a relatively brief playing time. This might suggest more of a ‘rock album’ ethos. Be that as it may, one would most certainly be missing out if one’s elitist suspicions precluded the sampling of Purnima.

As for the music from across the pond, Michel Gordon wrote his two pieces on his home turf in Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He has intimated that Tinge amounted to an attempt to cheer himself up during this grim period: he blended taped loops of salsa music with a baroque-infused score conceived for a trio of amplified violins. The percussive opening is redolent of a lively night in a salsa bar. The violins – Rakhi Singh has multi-tracked the three parts – combine in a short piece which is memorable, colourful, brilliantly arranged and, in Michael Gordon’s typical way, ever so slightly off-kilter. The fiddles fade out to leave a memorably groovy bass.

Light is Calling projects a more austere beauty. Distorted and fuzzy electronic pulses (which sound as though they were derived from bell resonances) underpin a violin solo of intense seriousness and ineffable grace. The enhanced amplification at its conclusion bestows a fulsome sound with an uneasy sense of otherworldliness, only reinforced by its final distortions. 

These sibling works are separated by the most expansive piece on the album, Julia Wolfe’s drone-suffused masterpiece LAD. I have never discovered why the piece carries this title; in the final analysis, it does not really matter. It is simultaneously provocative and profoundly affecting. I first heard it in the form in which it was originally conceived, for nine bagpipes! (In this guise, it can be found on Dark Full Ride, the Wolfe monograph also on Cantaloupe Music CA21058.) I remember reading that the piece was originally intended as a memorial for a violist friend of Wolfe’s. The original projects a slow-burn quality whose drones and siren-like glissandi build majestically towards vigorous pipe riffs which swerve between lament and jig. The guitarist Sean Shibe has already offered a bracing arrangement of the piece on his excellent softLOUD album (Delphian DCD34213).

So how does Rakhi Singh’s version size up? In the context of her album, I would suggest it works superbly. There is an appealing precision to her sound. It strikes home in the initial moments of this arrangement, and never lets up. Joseph Reiter’s immaculate production is layered with tremendous skill and generates remarkable power. A deferred gratification in Singh’s fiddles eventually arrives following the extended ‘drone’ section. That can certainly stand comparison to the equivalent release provided by bagpipes, electric guitars – or anything else that Wolfe’s thrilling piece might get arranged for, as it surely will. Singh elicits from her strings granitic swathes of the most affecting sound. If the first half of LAD is rooted in the Big Apple, by its conclusion we are surely back somewhere in Scotland.

Impressive as Rakhi Singh’s impassioned playing and deft arranging skills undoubtedly are,  on the evidence of this terrific disc she is equally talented as a curator of attractive and innovative programmes. I have a couple of gripes. I would like to have seen a bit more in the way of information about the composers and the works. The documentation is pretty sparse, although I enjoyed doing my own research! I also wish a bit more attention had been paid to spacing the individual tracks. The culture shock that occurs with the percussion break which kicks Michael Gordon’s Tinge into action straight after the serenity of Emily Hall’s Outshift III may have been conceptually intentional. But it was ill-advised. Ultimately, though, I am splitting hairs. Do not let my minor whinges distract you from sampling Rakhi Singh’s spellbinding disc.

Richard Hanlon

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