Who says the cello can’t be more than ‘just’ the low-end instrument of a string quartet? Over the last 40+ years, we’ve seen a distinct lineage of musicians (including, but not limited to, Arthur Russell and the more contemporary Oliver Coates) try and unshackle the instrument from its original, creatively stifling purpose, giving it a range of new uses in modern (art) music. An artist we’ll have to count among those illustrious innovators from now on is Juilliard-trained cellist Issei Herr, whose album Distant Intervals places her firmly within the tradition of boundary-pushing contemporary classical composers.
Behind the cover, adorned in warm hues of coral and terracotta with slivers of white, lies a rich exploration of the cello’s emotive potential, expressed through the sort of ambient, minimalist classical music you’d expect to hear from Stars of the Lid and other such acts. The pace is often glacial, but the music is anything but; in fact, there’s such a cordial vibe to Distant Intervals that it almost radiates more brightly than its artwork. Herr really knows how to get the most out of her single instrument, looping and layering her pieces while utilizing various techniques and approaches, which allows her to relay to her audience what she calls the ‘vast sound-world’ of the cello.
This sound-world is put to good use across Distant Intervals, although the overall atmosphere is pleasantly homogenous; these nine songs all come together into one big piece – no stylistic outliers, no filler, nothing to interrupt the serene flow. “Prelude (An Eternity of Light)” introduces us to much of the palette Herr will be drawing from. Tape hiss and glitches give way to gorgeous, hypnotic cello melodies; more and more layers are lovingly heaped upon another until the composition blossoms into incandescence. The build is gradual, quite minimalistic, but highly satisfying. “Aubade (The Farewell Is a Beginning)” seamlessly integrates into the ending of its predecessor, evoking a longing, melancholic, but ultimately empathic sense of emotional connection. In some of Herr’s melodies, the lines between the cello and the human voice become astonishingly thin; these brief moments elucidate the transformative potential of both her music and her chosen instrument.
“Elegy (As Soft Night Marches In)” is one of two sub-three minute songs on the album, but the way it integrates soft percussive elements into its mournful atmosphere makes is an impactful moment despite its shorter duration. Again, “Toccata (Kisses of Earth)” picks up its predecessor’s loose ends to weave them into its own quietly dramatic arrangement. There’s a certain air to this song, the smell of leaves and sun-warmed soil; it’s hard to put my finger on it. Percussion once more plays a vital role in fleshing out this composition, as do various (extended) techniques on the cello. It’s all very lively and engaging. Later on, “Serenata (To a Hidden Moon)” soars to elegant heights before unraveling into a fragmented finale.
Ending on “Aveu (The Beginning Is a Farewell)” – featuring a breathtaking vocal performance by Maria BC – is the best possible choice Herr could’ve made. It’s a stunning closer, and my personal highlight on Distant Intervals. Honestly, though, given the way everything interacts with and flows into each other so effortlessly, one could argue that this album is one big 37-minute highlight in and of itself. It certainly doesn’t display any dips in quality; neither did I find myself losing interest in it at any point, even over multiple spins. Issei Herr, with her début record no less, has firmly put herself on the map as a contemporary composer to keep an eye on in the future. Distant Intervals is an achingly beautiful mission statement, and I’m curious to see where she will go from here.
Header image courtesy of Eileen Emond