The first thing that popped into my head during Justin Wright’s Music for Staying Warm was an interview with, believe it or not, Vangelis. In Sounds magazine in 1976, James Wynn gaped at the tone palette Vangelis conjured – not from a limitless synthesizer – but from the comparatively monochromatic Fender Rhodes piano, which produced “lyrical vibes, vibrant bass, an amazingly accurate music-box sound and all sorts of other things.” Listening to Wright’s work for (supposedly) string quintet, I scrambled to see who overdubbed oboe, bass clarinet, and… voices? Was there a harmoniser pedal?
Wright tastefully extracts a wide range of colors from his cello and the rest of the ensemble. Natural harmonics, bridge mutes, bow positioning, and other traditional trickery cause the listener to wonder which stringed (or non-stringed) instruments are in the band.
A major contributor to the colors of ‘Warmth’ is the recording studio. In ‘Modular Winter’ the low-register viola melody would be lost were it not for microphone placement. The solo cello in ‘Improvisation’ is offset by a much more reverberant violin. Panning and echo effects cradle ‘In Sunlight’ in wispy harmonics that waft around the ensemble like dandelion seeds.
The interplay between harmonic effects and melody also gives ‘In Sunlight’ the only real dissonance on the album. Everything else basks in diatonic comfort and first-inversion optimism. Any ‘motion’, i.e. phrase repetition, exists to reinforce the grounded, frozen-in-time atmosphere.
Speaking of time-freezing, five words that repel my synthesizer colleagues are “Check out my drone piece.” Fortunately, the tracks here labelled ‘Drone’ are not endless tones that force the listener to wager when a musician will fall asleep and drop their instrument. They contain phrases. They move. ‘Drone III – Saudade’ tells an almost Schubertian tonal story. It is warm.
The final movement’s ‘Taps’-like melody gently lays us in a bed of reassuring Coplandic harmonies and enough plagal cadences to keep one eye on the heavens. The listener is indeed ‘Staying Warm’ “…and all sorts of other things.”
Music For Staying Warm by Justin Wright is released by First Terrace Records on April 5 2019.
Words: Reed Hays
(c) 2019 Reed Hays for Further.