CD Review: Anne Vanschothorst, Ek is Eik (Big Round Records 8932, 53 minutes)

Ann Vanschothorst is a harpist and composer who creates music in a variety of styles and for different purposes. Her latest release, Ek is Eik (Google Translate tells me this is Afrikaans for “I Am Oak”—I’m inclined to believe it since three other tracks include trees in their titles), is a beautiful-sounding and quite unclassifiable collection of eleven miniatures. Most pair harp with another instrument or instruments, all wonderfully played by trumpeter Saskia Laroo, gambist Ernst Stolz, percussionist Arthur Bont, and bassists Thijs de Melker and Bob van Luijt (who also serves as co-composer for two tracks that add electronics into the mix).

The arresting opening track, “Where’s Mo?,” sets up an interesting hybrid between a mournful, somewhat sultry trumpet line with jazz inflections and a more minimal-style harp part that sounds like an updated Erik Satie. In other tracks, a jazz element is altogether missing. The next, a harp solo “Wandering,” is more pattern oriented and a bit more classical in approach. A later harp solo, “The Caged Owl,” is much more experimental with a low dissonant cluster alternating with more chromatic and unsettling middle-to-upper-register harmonies.

Vanschotorst’s strategy of disorienting the listener without alienating him continues throughout the remaining 9 tracks, which run a fine stylistic variety from another foreboding piece, “I Know My Way,” to the much more dramatic “Here Once Stood Trees.” Both of these tracks are the ones for which Bob van Luijt takes a co-composer credit—they’re lovely soundscapes counterpointing the harp with a very ornate and cinematic tapestry of bass and samples with other electronics. Much of the music, indeed, has an understated expression that would make it well suited to film, and it’s not surprising that Vanshothorst has done some work in this area.

Her music depends on the actual music-making from her collaborators, who improvise above the solo harp tracks to produce the finished product. Judging from the results here, her choice of colleagues is excellent. I have enjoyed percussionist Arthur Bont’s work with her before, and his new work is inventive regarding both the actual rhythms he fashions as well as the instruments he chooses. The gambist Erik Stoltz exploits an incredibly wide pitch range and is as much at home with pale, plaintive melodies as with more elusive, somewhat dissonant patterns. Ms. Laroo’s trumpet has perhaps the strongest presence next to Vanschothorst, and she is a very welcome addition to the closely related first and final tracks.

Ek is Eik, then, is an unobstrusive but highly expressive release that repays repeated hearings. The quality of the engineering and production is first-rate.

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