Linda Catlin Smith Revels in Introverted Confidence with Sensuous, Idiosyncratic Album ‘Dark Flower’

One of my favorite aspects of autumn is the sensation of being wrapped in a warm jacket or bundled under a blanket when the cold air brushes past your face. It chills you, yes, but the sting also makes you feel warmer — cozy, as it were — through the contrast of sensation; we are more grateful for the warmth, having known its absence. The music of Linda Catlin Smith captures an uncannily similar feeling. These contradictions of perception pervade her work as little peculiarities: moments of unexpected dissonance, of voiding pauses, of sustains held slightly too long, of quiet intensities that deepen the work, giving space to sink into the sonic texture as it surrounds and embraces you, the sound not so much heard as felt.

Out Nov. 10 on Redshift Records, Dark Flower is a portrait album of Smith’s works performed by Thin Edge New Music Collective. The album is the result of a long collaboration between the composer and the ensemble, which performed one of the recorded works, With Their Shadows Long (1997), at its first concert. This intimate connection is felt through a sense of amalgamating idiosyncrasies. The music is performed in a very personal way, almost as if improvised — a feeling that is rare in recordings of notated music. This is further enhanced by the production, recording, and mastering, which manifest that sense of auditory closeness.

Thin Edge New Music Collective -- Photo by Shayne Gray

Thin Edge New Music Collective — Photo by Shayne Gray

Time dissolves in Wanderer (2009, revised 2022), as resonant piano and percussion — first in pale chords and semi-shimmering cymbals, and later in low piano, drum, and tam-tam rumblings — alternate with interjections of contrapuntal string phrases that contort in on themselves, slowly developing and incorporating the clarinet. Eventually, this subsides into a silence interrupted by delicate, elegiac lines woven through each other to create a resonant, eerie texture. The focus on resonance continues in Duo for Two Cellos (2015), though now with greater warmth as cello lines come and go in a wave-like fashion, each phrase separated by a brief pause. The tactile nature of the sound is foregrounded here; you can feel the rough friction of bow hair against strings and the breath of cellists Amahl Arulanandam and Dobrochna Zubek, creating a deeply intimate feeling.

Dark Flower (2020), commissioned by Thin Edge, is the most expansive work on the album. Sections melt into each other and into the silence that acts as Smith’s canvas. The harmony is suggestive and coloristic, at times feeling both old and new — reimagined ars nova-like counterpoint bends into extended harmonies reminiscent of Wayne Shorter or Charles Mingus. Thin Edge does masterful work here, slowly drawing out the piece and neither letting it settle and become stale, nor showing their hand too early.

The middle of the album features smaller piano and string configurations cast in a brighter sound. In Dreamer Murmuring (2014), the piano and strings shade each other, trading phrases and ideas that are sometimes imitative, and at other times more oblique. In With Their Shadows Long, a searching solo violin line, performed by Ilana Waniuk, moves between striking melodies and incredibly expressive long-held pitches. The effort of performing these thin, high sustains can be felt — the physicality is intrinsic to the sound. All of Waniuk’s slight variations in bow pressure and speed are heightened and isolated, making the texture the focus, rather than the notes and rhythms.

The final track, Unbroken, for Howard Skempton (2017), sees the piano — present throughout the record — now on its own. Cheryl Duvall brings the work to life, as closely voice-led chords repeat, alternate, and slowly evolve. The whole piece feels like a long unwinding of a single phrase as the piano grows more and more insistent, leading toward a final climax. This culmination, though, is one of introverted confidence, a stern but calm expression, rather than the kind of clangorous rupture common in Expressionist or Romantic writing. This introverted orientation is emblematic of much of the album; Smith’s music is often sensuous, close, quiet — almost private, but it can also feel incorporeal, even impersonal or cold. But in these contradictions and idiosyncrasies, the music thrives: the warmth felt even more so, the rough made soft and delicate, the music transformed back into raw, tangible sound.


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