smith flower redshift

Linda Catlin Smith (b. 1957)
Dark Flower
Wanderer (2009 rev 2022)
Duo for 2 cellos (2020)
Dark Flower (2020)
Dreamer murmuring (2014)
With their shadows long (1997)
Unbroken, for Howard Skempton (2017)
Thin Edge New Music Collective
rec. 2023, Noble Street Studios, Toronto, Canada
Redshift TK543 [64]

Full disclosure: I’m already an evangelical devotee of Linda Catlin Smith’s reliably contemplative, mysterious music. It’s three years since I contributed a review of her absorbing string trio Meadow to these pages; in it I mentioned the advocacy of Simon Reynell and his Another Timbre imprint for her oeuvre and I’ve since managed to source a couple of other recordings on Canadian and American independent labels. Here is a new one from Canada performed by the excellent Thin Edge New Music Collective (TENMC), a flexible ensemble not unlike the UK’s own Apartment House group. Their advocacy of Smith’s sublime music complements rather than rivals their British counterparts – indeed the composer was also involved in this recording – the warmth of the recording provides a different and equally valid ambience for her singular vision.

In Wanderer gongs and piano chords constitute an enigmatic background against which pipe like-strings and peep-bo clarinet exchange exotic melodic fragments. At 2:40 bass drum knockings are inveigled into a texture which leans toward Ivesian rapture. The piano chords are shifted up an octave –a less defined rhythm lures the clarinet to re-emerge and add lonesome shapes. From about 5:30 Smith’s insistent chordal repetitions suggest a hint of threat, the volatility reinforced by dissonance in the strings. By 7:00 an elongated piano decay over the knockings finally surrenders to a brief silence. Violin and clarinet intertwine canonically. The Apartment House account (Another Timbre – AT130) is more measured, in a slightly drier acoustic which also perfectly suits Smith’s aesthetic. Wanderer is addictive and succeeds in both approaches. It’s a classic.

Duo for two cellos imparts flavours of renaissance viol music. In the main Smith deploys the middle to low registers of the instruments. Phrases of 20-35 seconds are separated by brief pauses. The material ascends in a graceful, stately manner and radiates glowing melancholy. This impressive miniature was initially conceived for the unlikely combination of cello and euphonium but it’s difficult to imagine any improvement upon the present iteration of the piece. Cellists Amahl Arulanandam and Dobrochna Zubek are entirely at one with Smith’s unique idiom.

Dark Flower is relatively recent, a 26 minute piano quartet of poised power and autumnal grace. It is richly voiced and moves along with ceremonial solemnity. Its rippling, arpeggiated piano figures suggest a grave barcarolle. The pair of shifting piano chords at 7:08 signpost the spare melodic and harmonic content which defines the piece. Smith develops the work by adding carefully chosen material which is expertly distributed among various combinations of the four instruments. Dark Flower is as concentrated as Feldman but there is far more happening in terms of timbral variety, dynamic emphasis and contrapuntal shading. Homophonic strings frequently interrupt the flow to again suggest the aura of much earlier music. These phrases contrast with spare piano lines which faintly hint at jazz. By the end of Dark Flower, Smith’s chordal shapes are sufficiently familiar to achieve a satisfying resolution. Dark Flower proves to be profoundly compelling, even compulsive. Its beatific hold is intense; almost to a point where one expects (and hopes for) it to continue indefinitely; its abrupt conclusion in medias res comes as a complete shock. The quartet drawn from the Thin Edge Music Collective perform with the secure understanding that the actual notes Smith has provided barely scratch the surface of this music. It will need regular exposure, but Dark Flower is a remarkable achievement and merits the widest possible currency. However I’m certain most listeners would greatly appreciate a longer silence following its conclusion than Redshift have afforded it on this disc. It demands space to seal its inevitable impact. Perhaps Dark Flower should have been placed last on the programme. Either way the initial bars of Dreamer Murmuring break its spell all too quickly so prospective investors need to be aware.

And frankly Dreamer Murmuring equally deserves more space prior to its commencement. This six minute piano trio was commissioned for an innovative multi-media project which required a total of eleven new piano trios of the same length. Composed in 2014, the trio almost embodies a more concentrated study for Dark Flower; it is similarly austere, haunting and gnomic although violin and cello here shadow the piano more closely.

The only piece on the album dating from before the millenium is the violin and piano duo With their shadows long. This ten minute work played an important role in the foundation of the Thin Edge Music Collective in 2011, when violinist Ilana Waniuk and pianist Cheryl Duvall submitted a recording to support their very first funding application. With their shadows long seems more astringent than its couplings at first hearing; there’s more dissonance in the harmony and angularity in the melodic shaping. Violin lines are demarcated by chordal piano commentary which is again Feldmanesque in its style, and none the worse for that. Smith thus shares a few nascent stylistic fingerprints here, but in the context of the programme With their shadows long inevitably represents a bit of an outlier. Waniuk and Duvall unquestionably prove to be committed advocates.

The album proper concludes with Unbroken, for Howard Skempton, a brief, gently oscillating piano nocturne intended as a birthday gift for the English composer,  but a link on the disc jacket enables the purchaser to download three extras; Blackwing, for Heather Roche, a delicately lyrical bass-clarinet solo; Galanthus (snowdrop), for Daryl Jamieson – an unexpectedly virtuosic violin solo whose airy, Zen-like mood is most apt for a piece which was designed as a memorial for victims of the 2011 tsunami and finally A Nocturne (for Eve), a wonderful twelve minute piece conceived for the pianist Eve Egoyan which seems to constitute a slow, evocative fade, as day yields to night.

Notwithstanding my minor caveat about the pauses between the pieces, Dark Flower strikes me as essential listening. The performances of all nine items (the six on the disc and the three extras) have obviously been lovingly and fastidiously prepared, as any music projecting this level of subtlety demands. The work which bears the disc’s title is truly outstanding and will amply reward concentrated listening. Nick Storring’s informative and extensive booklet essay provides a splendid introduction to Linda Catlin Smith’s art. I hope the disc generates further interest in a fascinating, accessible composer whose time seems to have finally arrived.

Richard Hanlon

Availability: Bandcamp