Saturday, January 08, 2022

Music and Mystery: Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra and Salt House

At this writing it is the turning of the year. That is a good time to have a listen of recordings from Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra and the trio Salt House. Different as they are from one another, they each offer ways to think about change, story, and hope. Those are good subjects for exploration and reflection, too, in whatever season you may be reading this.

Composer, keyboard and accordion player, researcher ethnomusicologist, and band leader Jennifer Cutting draws from Celtic strands as well as classical music and the varied folk musics of North America and at times other places in her work. For the project The Turning Year she calls on the talents of members of her Maryland based Ocean Orchestra along with occasional guests to create six tracks which weave together contemporary and traditional sources.

Stories told through voice, instrument, lyric, melody, and harmony invite listeners to consider the sort of thought often present at a year’s turning. Reckoning with pain and loss is present, as are ideas of renewal, resilience, and hope.

Those strands are especially well woven through the title track, The Turning Year: A New year’s Toast. It opens the recording, with Steve Winick, Lisa Moscatiello, and Jennifer Cutting of Ocean joined by New England based quartet Windborne who are Lynn Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, Lauren Breunig, and Jeremy Carter-Gordon. On this track, the strength, beauty, and nuance come from joining of voices, as they sing unaccompanied.

Steve Winick sings lead on an exploration of the story of Robin Hood, the first completed track of an album of Robin songs Winick has planned, and a nod to springtime, as Robin Hood was often associated with that time of year. The song, which is called The Birth of Robin Hood, is Winick’s version of a traditional piece, with Ocean members adding in their own touches to the arrangement.

Themes of adventure, springtime, and music drawing on traditional sources inform the next three tracks as well, albeit in very different ways.

Je Me Ferai Une Maîtresse [I Will Take Me A Mistress] has its origins in a Breton tune which Jennifer loved and for which she wanted to write lyrics. For that she chose to rework a tale of a sailor drawn by the wiles of a lover to a sunken city off the coast of Brittany. That is a place where, legend has it, on certain days you can still hear bells of churches rising from the waves.

For Springtime’s Message, Cutting thought of the tradition of May carols, of singing to celebrate springtime. She drew on ideas from medieval times for the composition, which is meant to mark and celebrate triumph of warmth over cold and light over darkness.

Celtic music is often a source for Jennifer Cutting’s work. Weaving together of music from seventeenth century Irish harp player Turlough O'Carolan along with music of her own composition and some further bits of O’ Carolan’s work she created a song with words from Irish poet Thomas Moore to make Planxty Drew/Planxty Wilkinson/Wreath the Bowl, for a piece which appears in Ocean’s Saint Patrick’s Day events.

The Turning Year from Ocean Orchestra and their selected guests makes for adventurous, thoughful, and detailed music. To bring the set to a close, Cutting chooses a simpler focus with an intimate take on the song which opened this project, the title track The Turning Year. For this take on a song which acknowledges loss and reminds of hope, it is Moscatiello on voice and Cutting on piano.

The trio of artists who make up Salt House are masters as creating music which both stands within tradition and moves it forward. Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl are based in the north Highlands of Scotland. Jenny Sturgeon lives in Shetland. Usually they’d get together to write and record, but as circumstances have required, they have collaborated at distance, and indeed, made creative use of bringing in guest artists from distance.

The project they have created is called Working for Zeus.

Through the tracks, MacPherson and Sturgeon trade lead voices. MacPherson also plays acoustic and electric guitars and banjo. Surgeon plays guitar as well, along with harmonium. MacColl brings in fiddle, viola, and glockespiel and adds harmony vocals. Each brings a wealth of creativity and experience to their collaboration. MacPherson has been part of the top bands Fribo and Shooglenifty. Sturgeon has her own well received solo projects and collaborative work with Inge Thompson and others, always with a strong element of the natural world. MacColl draws on landscape and history of her native Highlands for her solo albums as well as for her work including the quartet RANT and the duo project Heal and Harrow.

All tracks are originals composed by the artists. If there’s one idea that pulls through it would be that of mystery heading over toward mystical.

In their lyrics Salt House create stories which are complete in themselves but just as likely could be parts of continuing conversations -- conversations in which each song stands on its own while encouraging wonderment about what came before and what comes after. The music carries that sort of conversational idea as well, from the opening title track Working for Zeus through to the concluding one, Sawdust.

Contemplative in general tone, the stories told through music and word are varied and engaging.

In the title track MacPherson sings of “There is a whisper in the wind there is a silence in the mist...” and a landscape of eagles soaring as the singer looks out over the landscape from his workshop, setting images which will last. The sound of kantele, a plucked string instrument from Finland played by Maija Kauhanen, adds to the sea mist and mystical atmosphere.

Ideas of distance are an elements of Under the Same Moon, for which Sturgeon takes lead vocal. MacPherson and guest Cahalen Morrison drive forward the enigmatic story told in The Day We Made a Wood with voice and banjo.

In Wood of Dreams Sturgeon’s lead is thoughtfully backed by MacColl’s’ harmony, and there is an especially powerful interchange between guest Peter Frost Fadnes’s bass clarinet and MacColl on fiddle.

The album comes to a close with Sturgeon singing “the sawdust falls like snowflakes...” with MacCool’s fiddle and Olav Luksengard Mjelva on hardanger fiddle adding to that image, on the song Sawdust.

The Turning Year from Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra, at six tracks, and Working for Zeus from Salt House, with five, are shorter projects to be sure. Each project and each track on both, though, offer much to enjoy and much to explore in repeated listening.

You may also wish to see
A few thoughts on Silence and music
Ocean Orchestra’s album Song of Solstice
Jenny Sturgeon’s song Air & Light is part of this story about Music for Connection and Celebration at Wandering Educators
Lauren MacColl’s album Srewn with Ribbons is aprt of this story about Music for Saint Andrew’s Day

Photograph of Jennifer Cutting by Irene Young

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posted by Kerry Dexter at

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