Sounds Heard: Shelter—Gordon/Lang/Wolfe

Sounds Heard: Shelter—Gordon/Lang/Wolfe


by Michael Gordon/David Lang/Julia Wolfe
Martha Cluver
Mellissa Hughes
Caroline Shaw
Ensemble Signal
Brad Lubman (conductor)

The human desire for a safe space—a roof over your head, a room of one’s own, a place to hang your hat and call home—is both an evolutionary constant and yet a fickle target. An emotional harbor as much as a physical shield, it’s a comfort all too easily destroyed at the hands of both men and Mother Nature. Sometimes the longing is rooted in the need for a secure place to sleep, sometimes in the desire for landscaping that will impress the neighbors.

To create Shelter, Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe joined forces to explore the parameters of such architecture.  The resulting seven-movement evening-length oratorio is sung for this recording with crystalline precision by vocalists Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw (yes, that Caroline Shaw) with Ensemble Signal (Brad Lubman, conductor) at their side.

Though teasing apart who wrote what might be an amusing game for serious fans of these composers (see video for insight into their process), in truth their distinct vocabularies braid together with a remarkable ease that only serves to heighten the overall auditory interest of the piece. The arrestingly spare, meditative consideration of doorway activities—looking for keys, taking off shoes—offered in the opening “Before I Enter” gives way to the in-your-face aggression of “Is the Wind.” In this movement, the electric guitar and bass end of the instrumental ensemble drive the pulse, the woodwinds screaming an arc of complaint across the top as the higher strings stair-step their way through aerobic feats of endurance. The emotional tenor of the music continues to shift through passages of grandiose pronouncement (“American Home”) and almost prayerful ascension (“I Want To Live”). The vocal play and instrumental intricacy of “Porch” stood out as a personal highlight, but in truth it’s hard to play favorites here. Even when the tension ebbs, it never fully lets go of the line, clinging to a violence only fully allowed to crash into the structure of things in the piece’s final movement.

Shelter (2005) is the third in a trilogy of collaborative works by this trio of composers, a remarkable series that also includes The Carbon Copy Building (1999) and Lost Objects (2001). Fans of those previous pieces, particularly Lost Objects with which Shelter shares some distinct aesthetic sensibilities, as well as its librettist Deborah Artman, are likely to fall into this final chapter with relish. Even if Shelter is a first brush with the power trio’s output, however, it’s sure to leave a strong impression—whether the underlying panic reads to your ear and experience as the stress of making the next mortgage payment or confronting the specter of rising flood waters.

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