Mary Ellen Childs’ Wreck: Tension and Terror Below the Waves
Imagine yourself trapped inside the last watertight container of a recently sunken ore boat at the bottom of Lake Superior. Composer Mary Ellen Childs‘ new album Wreck hauntingly traces the narrative of that vessel and its crew, beginning with the first wave that punched a hole in it. The cinematic eighteen-part suite is all the more haunting for its relentless suspense: while there are moments of sheer horror, and even black humor, they take a back seat to tension. Childs wrote the distantly Indian-tinged theme and variations for chamber quintet as a score to a ballet by Black Label Movement. The Minnesota-based cast of musicians – Jello Slave cellists Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan, Sycamores violinist Laura Harada, clarinetist Pat O’Keefe and percussionist Peter O’Gorman – plays with an understated, singleminded intensity to match the music.
As the title theme unwinds, a searing, distant run down the scale on the cello hints at what’s in store, and it’s ugly; otherwise, this waltzing melody is more wistful than anything else. Beginning with low, ominous bass clarinet, the music picks up with a breakneck pace, an almost comedic sense of everything going wrong that possibly could – or laughter in the face of imminent doom. A heroic theme takes centerstage but is quickly interrupted, then the suspense sets in and pretty much takes over the rest of the way. Gently brooding long-tone meditations ponder what might lie after, austere string motifs moving slowly through the frame. There are occasional electroacoustic moments – a disturbing low speaker hum, flitting ghostly accents, a surrealistically Andriessen-esque, bell-like JamesPatrick remix of Kolokol, a previous Childs piece and a Lynchian soundscape assembled by Neverwas.
After a storm theme with the drums and cymbals crashing, a chilly calm sets in. Have the remaining crew been able to summon help? Or have they decided to meet their fate with a resigned stoicism, even finding the strength within them to console each other? The answer doesn’t make itself clear almost until the end, when the bass clarinet takes over one of Childs’ many intricate polyrhythms. As they diverge or converge, Childs’ haunting, terse melodies offer a quiet salute to courage in the face of unspeakable fear. It’s one of the best albums of the year in any style of music, out now from Innova.
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