By Gary Ruschman, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
It’s easy to get a premiere. It can even be easy to build momentum as a composer and get a string of them. The brass ring, however, is often that second performance, that second recording, that documentation of the ongoing creative work, not just the new creating itself. Nashville-based composer/pianist Cristina Spinei’s stripped-down EP, Mechanical Angels, gets to the essentials: beautiful playing, an intimate room, a peek at part of the composer’s heart we haven’t yet seen.
An intimate prelude or interlude, Spinei’s sophomore release shows us the artist looking to be taken seriously (see interview below) on her own terms, and those artistic terms might not be what you were expecting from a person with such a command of string sonority and looping. And despite the short EP length, there is plenty here to suggest she will be producing quality, engaging work in many veins for a long time to come. Digging into online resources, I’ve found in her back catalog (the Music for Dance album; a gorgeous 2011 work for strings entitled Synched; a short song cycle in Spanish called Desde las cenizas, and more), and through interviews (linked below) her curiosity and innovative use of technology in the field to be very encouraging and inspiring.
Like her 2016 debut Music for Dance, thoughtful, short gestures are the main focus of these scores, combining and layering in the spaces where phrases end and begin. But Mechanical Angels isn’t a trip to see the show. The restricted piano range and the general reserve of the playing make this twenty-minute excursion perfect listening for home on a rainy autumn afternoon: “I wanted to create a collection of pieces that is more personal and exposed than anything else that I’ve written. It is important for me as a female composer to undertake my own project and to present my music in a way that reflects my aesthetic. The classical music world hasn’t always been accepting of that.”
The first of these four meditations, Relics, starts us on a slow circular path, winding out to gradually longer melodic expression. A track with an almost pop appeal in its progression, one half expects a lyric to come out of the texture (knowing Spinei’s affinity for different genres, maybe we’ll see a vocal version of the piece one day).
Perhaps Peregrine’s cello (played with thickly-vibrato-ed, longing tone by Alexis Lee) could have flown further and higher, but stays grounded somewhat by the weight of the line and the firm left hand descent underneath it all.
The majority of the EP’s movement has been reserved for the title track which follows: at once a George Winston-esque nature panorama and a watch-geared holy visitation, Mechanical Angels ups the velocity and refreshes the album with a catchy riff and a sequence of syncopated entrances before the piece softly brings us back to ground.
The final track, Reflection, begins with a warm lower-register bath, but rises up gently and takes moments to pause and gather chords in the suspensions. Melancholy and shimmering, the last few seconds make me wonder what is next to come, where a resolution might be. I look forward to hearing more of this piano-centric passion and punctuation.
Having no dancers to propel or live audience to reach thirty feet away in a concert hall, the recording treats us to a performance which feels very close-up, even down to the sometimes audible pedaling–you feel as though you are on the bench with the performer (not everyone will love that aspect of the production, but I found it helped me understand the playing technique in some places). Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine Spinei delighting as much as I did in hearing what happens when sounds are allowed to ring for a moment–when lines collide and hang together for a few brief seconds.
For those listeners using headphones, the engineering offers a nice dynamic range, though with occasional pointy-ness in the upper-register sections through my everyday Roland closed-back phones. The sound was definitely warmer when played through my studio monitors (Yamaha HM50M) and home stereo speakers.
Gary Ruschman is a Twin Cities-based stage performer, bass guitarist, conductor, and composer who lights up texts with tuneful, organic, and accessible music. His arrangements and scores have been called “soulful” (St. Paul Pioneer Press), “stirring” (Opera News), and “rousing” (American Record Guide). He toured the globe and recorded the vocal ensemble Cantus for a decade, and specializes in Baroque and new music. Learn more about Gary Ruschman at http://ruschman.com and https://twitter.com/GaryRuschman.