Who by Fire and Ice Calls: If Grief Could Wait by harpist Giovanna Pessi and singer-songwriter Susanna Wallumrod, performing Henry Purcell and other composers

By Daniel Garrett

Giovanna Pessi and Susanna Wallumrod, If Grief Could Wait
Produced by Manfred Eicher
ECM Records, 2012

If Grief Could Wait has a unique sound, one the listener has to make an effort to grasp, allowing it to be more than a beautiful and rare foreign object.  The collection by Swiss baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi and Norwegian vocalist Susanna Wallumrod began with significant preparation, including a year of rehearsals, and it focuses on the compositions of Henry Purcell, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Susanna Wallrumrod.  Susanna Wallumrod has a lovely voice, fragile and firm, hushed but easy to listen to; and she is a good songwriter.  Giovanna Pessi and Susanna Wallumrod are also supported by an early music player, the German-educated Jane Achtman on viola da gamba, and the Italian musician Marco Ambrosini on nyckelharpa, a Swiss keyed fiddle.

Spiritual desolation is expressed by the lonely simplicity of “The Plaint,” written by Henry Purcell, containing the lines, “I’ll hide me from the sight of day, and sigh, and sigh my soul away.”  We may want to be alone, but others do not always let us alone.  The question “Who shall I say is calling?” is asked in the composition “Who by Fire.”  In Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire,” a well-known song, incantatory, the lyrics suggest the different circumstances of address, as if in private or public ritual; and it is great having it near the beginning of If Grief Could Wait, adding energy and mystique.  “If grief has any pow’r to kill, I have receiv’d my doom,” sings the narrator; and one thinks of delicate mystery, the centrality of words, and the significance of tradition listening to Henry Purcell’s “If Grief Has Any Pow’r to Kill.”  Torment—the pain delivered by self against self—is eloquently expressed by the words from the same song, “In vain I struggle with the dart that galls my tortur’d mind.”  It could be about children lost in the woods, but death or family alienation, or both, seems the likely the subject of Susanna Wallumrod’s own “The Forester,” a lengthy piece structured by movement, a composition that could be spoken by a ghost, one that repeatedly asks, “Who are you?,” something another piece will answer.  The instrumental “A New Ground,” by Purcell, has the sharp precision of a piano, though the sound is, apparently, not that of a piano.  “You Know Who I Am,” by Leonard Cohen, seems both truthful and poetic, and lends the collection an attractive vitality: “Sometimes I need you naked, sometimes I need you wild.  I need you to carry my children in and I need you to kill a child” and “I am the one who loves changing from nothing to one.”

There is longing for a distant acquaintance in Susanna Wallumrod’s composition “Hangout,” sung in a sad, beseeching voice, but the piece, somehow, has a contemporary emotional tone—it is direct, repetitive, ambiguous, clinging, although in a classical setting.  Mixing praise and melancholy, there is a restrained exultation in “O Solitude,” by Purcell whose work is at the center of If Grief Could Wait.  Henry Purcell (1659-95), a great English composer and educator, was influenced by Italian baroque music and traditional English music.  He was affiliated with Westminster Abbey as organ tuner, composer for court violins, and organist, before becoming a composer for the king’s music (Charles II), and harpsichordist for James II.  Purcell wrote theatrical music for works based on Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, and is most recognized for his opera Dido and Aeneas.  His sacred and secular songs are a continuing part of the classical repertory (obviously); and Giovanna Pessi and Susanna Wallumrod were attracted to his baroque work.

With a sparkling stream of notes, the instrumentation full of light and possibility, Nick Drake’s “Which Will” sounds romantic, but there is an increased heaviness of sung tone that introduces doubt; then again, it is based on a text full of unanswered questions.  Purcell’s “A New Scotch Tune” is here.  Hearing the fragility and focus of Purcell’s “Music For A While,” featuring the lyric “Music for a while shall all your cares beguile,” an old promise, one thinks of both tradition and emotion, and the thought that has been slowly forming becomes complete: a sensitivity that is precious, that has to be protected by established power, will be in danger if it goes without protection.  It is the story of art; and it is the story of each of us—at one point or another.

A melancholy dance can be found in the variation offered of a second playing of “A New Scotch Tune,” with its broad, expressive strokes.  The music rises in strength to form the truest duet in Purcell’s “An Evening Hymn,” which declares, “To the soft bed my body I dispose, but where shall my soul repose?”  It is spiritual music but it is impossible not to think that this music—delicate, eloquent, fine, thoughtful, lovely—is meant for a world of aristocratic or bourgeois comfort and confidence.  Where else could such a sensibility be sustained?  Many people hate sensitivity; they have no use for it—and think it distraction, indulgence, weakness.  Why is it hard for people to see that those who most need what is considered precious—as refreshment, as salvation—are the busy, the degraded, the miserable, the poor, the tired, the vanquished?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

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