Aural Fixation

Jason Victor Serinus
4 min read
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Mesmerizing Eastern European vocal music from a Berkeley based ensemble? Absolutely. Kitka was founded in 1979 by women who wished to share their passion for the “stunning dissonances, asymmetric rhythms, intricate ornamentation, lush harmonies, and resonant strength of Eastern European women's vocal music.” The ensemble has since become recognized as the foremost exponent of Balkan and Slavic choral repertoire in the U.S.

Wintersongs is a collection of 20 sacred and ritual songs, ranging from a pagan Latvian solstice song to Christmas/New Year songs and carols. The eclectic repertoire from Moravia, Romania Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, the Ukraine, Belarus, Israel and Greece features engaging contrasts of tempo, emotional content, and unusual harmonies. Besides two oft-heard melodies, the unfamiliarity of the selections makes them suitable for year-round enjoyment.

The women's pristine vocalism and frequently haunting solos and duets display an uncommon fineness. Although not as hard-edged sounding as native Bulgarian ensembles, they do a fine job producing the nasal, dissonant singing that makes Bulgarian music so unique. Sometimes accompanied by accordion, flute, percussion, tambura and/or bouzouki, the lively numbers are infectious, and the slow, soft singing caresses the soul. Kitka immerses us in the passion and celebration at the root of all earth-centered culture.

Michael Hoppé Solace (Spring Hill Music)

As the Prague Symphony Orchestra plays the opening to Michael Hoppé's 2004 Grammy-nominated “The Majestic Land,” the first of 12 original compositions, you may think you're listening to Dvorak or perhaps to a classic movie soundtrack. Given the composer/keyboardist's background, which includes scoring music for HBO's “The Sopranos” and several feature films, those influences and more are present in spades. But amidst the unabashed romanticism, sentimentality, and sameness of melodic line lies a genuine breath of solace and comfort. It is this heartfelt affirmation of beauty, the process that Rabindranath Tagore alludes to when he writes “Dark clouds become heaven's flowers when kissed by light,” that will speak to many.

Vangelis lends his distinctive voice to the final “The Parting.” Other tracks sometimes feature oboe, cello, guitar, violin, viola, and soprano and baritone vocal solos. With the Prague Symphony's three tracks recorded live via the Internet, this disc unites old and new in expression of peace.

Riley Lee & Satsuki Odamura Picture Dreams (New World Music)

This exquisite issue marks the 10th anniversary of collaborations between shakukachi master Riley Lee and koto player Satsuki Odamura. The Texas-born Lee spent eight years studying in Japan, becoming the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of Grand Master (Dai Slihapi) in the shakuhachi bamboo flute tradition. He has since released thirty recordings, many featuring his own compositions, and performed in Lincoln Center, Boston Symphony Hall, and the Sydney Opera House. The equally adept Odamura left Japan in 1988 to become a key figure in increasing universal appreciation for the koto. She settled in Australia, where she teaches when not performing throughout the world.

The seven extended compositions on this disc are distinguished by a spareness of instrumentation that heightens their emotional impact. Titles (many of whose composers are not indicated) include an interpretation of Miyagi's famous “Spring Sea” inspired by the Seto Inland Sea and the original title track inspired by the sound of the late autumn wind at a mountain temple. Beautiful serene music of the highest order.

Ej Mills Brennan Breath of Prayers III (

Ej Mills Brennan, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in the Northeast woodlands, writes lovely, soulful compositions that speak of love, nature and the fate of our planet. All are of moderate tempo. The six instrumental works, ranging from “Candle Lit” for solo piano to others that mix piano, flute, wood flute, and hand drum, serve as a bridge between the five graced by Ej's evocative voice. Ej excels in inflecting some of her lyrics with a delightfully cool jazz tinge. I find the song “Water Please” quite haunting; “Don't Lose Your Faith” seems dedicated to all of us. The full-price disc is lamentably short—less than 34 minutes—but true value lies in Ej's meditative vision and mellow musicality.

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