Isolation, Anxiety: Pandemic In Music For Soulful Voices

Vocalist-composer Magos Herrera, above, collaborates with composer Paola Prestini on a new recording on the National Sawdust label. (Photo by Adrien Tillman)

Con Alma. National Sawdust NS-033. Streaming on Amazon, Apple music, Spotify, Bandcamp, and Qobuz

DIGITAL REVIEW – Since the inception of the pandemic, the term “artefact” has gathered significant traction. Listen to any podcast or artist statement and the word keeps surfacing. There’s heightened attention on the purposefulness and social responsibility of art making and a calibration of what an artefact means at this time. Some artists are documenting history-making events. Others are building on the moment to create works that serve the needs of the community – perhaps function as a panacea, address a social inequity, or act as a conduit, simply to bring people together for a shared experience.

Con Alma, a collaborative recording project between composer Paola Prestini and vocalist-composer Magos Herrera as part of the National Sawdust label, reflects the complexities of the human experience: “Write, therefore, what you have seen / What is now, and what will take place later,” preface the liner notes. Con Alma, described as “an operatic tableau on isolation,” speaks to the humanity of the moment and chronicles the experiences many of us recognize in our daily lives during the pandemic.

The compilation of vocal tracks – incorporating original and commissioned choral music, chamber works, and electronic collages, together with classic songs from the Mexican and jazz songbooks – seeks to articulate our universal yearning for connection, quell our anxieties, and reflect on feelings of isolation and calls to the grace of nature for respite and inspiration.

The Herrera-Prestini aural voyage brings an intimacy to its narrative through a personal and thoughtful approach. The album reflects on the 15-year artistic and personal friendship of the two musicians. For the listener, this milestone reveals itself in the range of compositional and performance styles, from Herrera’s distinctive modern jazz-Brazilian fusion background to Prestini’s contemporary classical upbringing. The two heritages meet and meld to offer a distinctive stylistic complexity.

So then what is the sound of absence? What is the music of belonging and isolation? For Herrera and Prestini, these states of being are bird songs chattering with church bells, choral chants counterpointing overlays of electronic loops, and recorded transcripts of emotional phone messages amalgamated as part of social media “sounds of isolation” projects with plaintive singing. The results are highly textured, multi-layered, and multi-perspective.

The choral works are the album’s highlight, with Prestini’s adroit writing and Herrera’s solo vocals creating a sense of otherworldliness.

In Fratres, Prestini takes on a neo-Biblical element. Written expressly for the Ensemble Sjaella, a splendid Leipzig-based female a cappella sextet, Fratres is a double-choir setting of Palestrina’s Fratres ego enim accepi. Prestini’s Fratres dramatizes the fictional presence of Mary Magdalena at the Last Supper. The work features soaring, clarion-voiced soprano lines redolent of Hildegard von Bingen’s chants. Slow trills and ornaments (recalling Middle Eastern influences), whispers, and low-voiced melodies then usher in Herrera’s amber-coated vocalise. Fratres is one of Prestini’s most emotionally compelling works.

Paola Prestini (Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath)

In Thrush Song, with music by Prestini and Herrera, text by Maria Popova (based on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), and soundscape by Sxip Shirey, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and Herrera combine for a little puff of joy, articulating glorious hopefulness and lightness through the promise of spring.

Con Alma celebrates the female contribution and is gloriously feminine in the most powerful way. Calling any album feminine is a tricky proposition at our particular cultural crossroad and in the fraught terrain of what femininity engenders. But if an album reflects the world viewed through a female gaze, can we celebrate the strengths and virtues of the feminine spirit? Certainly yes.

As a musical documentary of emotion, Herrera and Prestini gathered more than 30 musicians from three continents for their cross-border album of original works, representing a feat that in itself defines the indefatigable spirit of women today.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and The New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.