If you’ve ever had the good fortune to see Jo Quail perform one of her solo shows, you’ll know what dazzling events they are. Armed only with a natty looking electric cello and a few tons of electronic witchcraftery, she beguiles even the most unexpected audience with her skill and grace. When she played at the recent ArcTangent festival, the sight of a couple of thousand swooning audients, draped in every kind of extreme metal t-shirt you can wave a particularly pointy stick at, in rapt awe at every note was something to behold. It’s quite right that she finds her way onto unexpected bills as she is a key ingredient in raising proceedings above the norm wherever she performs. Her presentation is extraordinary, in deep concentration and seemingly removed from the performance whilst playing, as if she’s alone and just doing what she loves – which she clearly is.
Here we have her latest release, and it’s more than fitting for many of the listeners she has no doubt picked up playing these, on paper, unusual dates. The Cartographer was commissioned by the Roadburn Festival in 2020 to explore “the space where classical instrumentation and contemporary heavy music intersect: how classical music has a heaviness of its own, and how these elements can be brought into contemporary heavy genres”. The piece, played by a small ensemble, is built on five prose phrases, each containing an intention for the different movements, “pared through the artist’s pitch system to create the musical motif on which the whole work is based”. It’s well named, as the Cartographer of the title maps new ways through a musical landscape. After the delays brought on by the events of the last couple of years, the premiere performance was held at Roadburn in the Netherlands in April this year.
From the opening crash of a gong, we’re in a dark world of the unknown. Alice Krige’s narration sets the spooky and mystical scene as pensive storm clouds roll through a seemingly bleak and featureless landscape. Jo’s cello emerges, a point of warmth amidst the darkness, a spark that elegiacally solos to create features in the barren wasteland. There’s an aura of impending doom; will the spark be snuffed out or will it burst into a fiercer flame? The sense of foreboding grows deeper on ringing tones, but the piece continues to simmer rather than boil over, acting as an unsettling overture. Danielle Van Berkom’s plaintive violin takes up the mournful solitude, punctuated with brass and percussion. Finally, the expansive brass starts to build, and magisterial possibilities begin to emerge.
The second movement is again pensive and restrained to start, brass and strings spiralling slowly around each other, as if to get the measure of each other’s capabilities. Suddenly there’s a burst of energy in dramatic chords, a martial statement of intent. A delicate piano emerges, a mouse around the feet of a war horse, with distant voices like the ghosts of an earlier conflict. Calls to arms emerge from the distance, growing closer, but it feels as if the battle is passing us by. There’s real restraint in the playing and arrangement as things gradually grow more intense on a pulsating wave of trombone which breaks to a low wailing vocals as the third movement begins.
The orchestral percussion, from Nils Jenster and Vito Guerrieri, comes into its own here, adding passion and threat in equal measure. The tension is released slightly on a wave of violins and ethereal vocals, but is extinguished with an iron clad stomp and sinister piano from Floris Verbeij, and we’re now in the deepest unworldly dungeon amid clanking sounds and startling eeriness. The trombones return en masse, a regal sound in the dank underworld, monkish chants adding to the unsettling air, forceful piano chords unleashing the trombones again to rise to an exhilarating crescendo. There’s a rhythmic earthiness over which the brass rolls like thunder – and a scream of defiance, the rhythms and voices offering a pagan feel, a primitivism palpable in the clashing instrumentation. The intensity and power of Jake Harding’s voice works well against the more cultured tomes of Lucie Dehli, and the drama of this longest movement had me on the edge of my seat.
The fourth movement is more mechanical, like the workings of a giant clock, shifting rhythms supporting a flurry of cello with brass accents. The instruments again work beautifully together to build a thought-provoking and fully engaging whole. There’s an urgency to the multi-layered sound that swells to a fitting conclusion on a lilting pillow of uplifting brass.
The final movement is the shortest, but it’s a perfect way to close, voices intoning in the darkness before a wall of brass reflects brilliant light on a world that the Cartographer can now fully map. The light seeps into every corner, illuminating and reclaiming the land at last on a wave of positivity.
It’s quite a journey! Contemporary music – not classical, although with classical influences – of the highest quality, for music lovers rather than aesthetes, dramatic and readily conjuring imagery of drama and imagination.
Quail’s playing is, as always, exemplary, eloquent and very moving, and the resonant brass-heavy setting, courtesy of the New Trombone Collective and the other talented players, is dramatic, complex and emotional and easily bears repeated listening. It fulfils its remit of exploring the heaviness inherent within classical music in a ground-breaking way, taking unexpected instrumentation and delivering a piece that I’m sure will resonate with many audiences. Music as it should be, presented without genre – just open your mind and let it in.
I need to see this performed live, so fingers crossed on that one…
01. Movement 1 (12:07)
02. Movement 2 (8:58
03. Movement 3 (14:58)
04. Movement 4 (7:15)
05. Movement 5 (4:18)
Total Time – 47:36
Jo Quail – Electric Cello, Effects
Danielle Van Berkom – Electric Violin
Floris Verbeij – Piano
Jake Harding – Vocal
Lucie Dehli – Vocal
Nils Jenster & Vito Guerrieri – Orchestral Percussion
The New Trombone Collective:
– Remko De Jager, Koen Kaptijn, Alexander Verbeek, Pierre Volders, Sebastiaan Kemner, Lode Smeets, Mark Boonstra & Brandt Atemma – Trombones
Alice Krige – Spoken Word
Jos Pijnappel – Conductor
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 6th/sup> May 2022