Lasting Shadows: Xavier Beteta’s Dark, Elegiac Debut Album

A shadow can be defined as partial or complete darkness. So it seems only appropriate that composer Xavier Beteta released his debut album, Lasting Shadows (Sideband Records), in mid-November, a time when daylight decreases and shrouds more hours in darkness with each passing day. Opening with a stark clarinet (Samuel Dunscombe) seemingly calling out into the abyss is a fitting prelude. Accompanied by the low, rumbling bass keys of the piano played by Todd Moellenberg, the sparse notes only further accentuate the barren soundscape. The subtle percussion sounds like the striking of a succession of matches. As a listener, it’s as though you’ve entered the unknown, where every attempt at light is extinguished.

Drawing upon the mass casualties of the Guatemalan Civil War, the haunting qualities of Lasting Shadows reflect Beteta’s macabre inspiration. Intending the titular piece as an elegy, the instrumentation is indisputably dramatic; sudden and striking, driven by minor harmonies in the piano and the interplay of the accompanying instruments, like a meandering clarinet. The pauses throughout the piece create a somewhat meditative environment. The choice is with purpose. Just as a remembrance provides a place to reflect upon the dead, the same clearance given here. Beteta’s successfully establishes a veiled atmosphere with enough space to draw the listener into the unknown rather than losing them in a maze. It’s taking you somewhere, serving as much as the beginning of an album as it is a portal to an increasingly dim dimension. Concluding with deliberate silence over a half minute long, the structure of the composition feeds the listener’s curiosity to continue.

Cast over the next three tracks, Fragments of a Distant Dream breaks the silence in an instant with the sharp stroke of violin (Kimberly Hain) before a voice emerges. Soprano Tiffany DuMouchelle speaks, sings, and utters enigmatic clicks and syllables of truncated words that align with the mysterious mood. Delving into the topics of bridging voids between souls, transference, and communication in various intonations, our newfound narrator alternates from force to hush. Her words are an interpretation of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s body of work. All the while, she is accompanied by an array of flutter tonguing and aeolian tones by flutist Berglind Tómasdóttir.

Xavier Beteta--Photo by Ran Duan

Xavier Beteta–Photo by Ran Duan

As the trilogy of movements take shape, increasing tension in the violin, cello, and piano imitate tumbles, stabs, and slaps. Did we step into a dream or a nightmare? Are these fragments the sharp shards of a broken mirror? DuMouchelle’s engaging narration remains present. The questions she’s asking give pause for reflection, though the pace of the piece doesn’t necessarily provide the space to discern. Her voice is impossible to ignore, but doesn’t distract from or outweigh the instrumentation, instead augmenting the torrent of snap pizzicato, bow overpressure, and prepared piano.

It’s not until a shout of, “The world is false!” in the final minute that the tension breaks, allowing the listener to find their bearings. But this is not quite the total wakeup one would expect as we find ourselves in yet another dimension by the time La Catedral Abandonada emerges. Expected relief is instead anything but during the 11-minute exploration. Still eerie, but with more space than its immediate predecessors, the interplay between instruments sows doubt and persistence as the flute, clarinet, and percussion accompany flourishes of glissandos on the piano.

The final track, La Resurrección de la Memoria, acts as the appropriate summation. It’s not about melody–it’s a focus, an exploration of a realm beyond this one, or perhaps one that coexists with this one. This duality is present even in Beteta’s doubled instrumentation of two pianos, two marimbas, and two basses. Here, the fragments of his familial past take the shape of remnants, mementos. The listener is presented with the steady tapping of the same keys in succession. The pairs of instruments play like an attempt to find balance. Pianists Kyle Blair and Todd Moellenberg and percussionists Sean Dowgray and Christopher Clarino play up and down the scale, like two directions or realms occurring at once. Eventually, the piano becomes less frantic, and single notes emerge as though our guide/composer has achieved clarity.

Whether Beteta is exploring the national strife of his birthplace or attempting to connect with his own ancestors, there’s never a feeling of dissonance between the works on Lasting Shadows. The relational aspect makes for a singular journey during the nearly hour-long foray. The world building is an achievement as Beteta tackles his own identity in contrast to personal and national history. The album transports the listener to another domain throughout the six tracks, but by the time the last piano notes sound, it’s as though you’ve been led back to the present.


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