In these, the darkest and busiest and final days of the year, it seems right to turn to an album of substance and somber beauty. Mystic Canticle, a release by violinist Marta Richardson, is subtitled “a meditation” and in its 13 tracks it covers a lot of ground, both stylistically and emotionally.
It’s possible that, were a listener to play Mystic Canticle in, say, August, the mournful and percussive opener, “Mountains,” would speak of verdant hills and pressing humidity. But this month it soundtracks long nights and the melancholy homey-ness of brown mountains slumped into sleep. “Solitary Wooded Valleys,” too, with its solid keyboard notes and quavering violin, taps into the dream of hibernation. It’s the wordless narrative played behind closed eyelids and the storied quality of certain silences. Here, the violin aches with the creak of branches rubbing in the wind, the piano (Thom Buchanan is featured throughout the album on keys, guitar and programming) is a musical fall of water from rocks — a symphony played for no one.
“Sonorous Rivers” is a standout on the album. It keeps with the organic theme of the record, but there’s an almost pop-savvy refrain that begs for repeated listens. And if pop-savvy seems an odd description of an instrumental piece, the cadence (Michael Kelly on percussion, Keith Miller on bass and Buchanan on guitar) gently rocks and sweetly sways. Richardson’s violin mimics a vocal, from its trills to its swooning high notes. The track, among the album’s briefest, is a shot straight to the heart.
A human voice is introduced on “Whisper of the Amorous Breezes.” There, Kathy Martinson’s vocalizations are haunting aerials — smoke plumes adrift on lazy breezes, a silvery flock of birds swooping and diving in tandem against an early morning sky.
Richardson doesn’t shy away from the experimental, either. “The Silent Music” is disquieting as the violin creeps to higher notes while, in the background, glass shatters in time with a dull mechanical thud. (The flutters and warbles of “Spiced Wine” also take that track in unexpected directions, though the effect is a bit more genial.) But extended low notes — a bowed bass, perhaps? — that could add menace to the scene instead bring warmth and foundation.
The following track, “Sounding Solitude,” shares little, temperamentally, with its predecessor. There’s a kind of thread from silence to solitude, but the mood here is softly poignant. A candlelit evening, a rain-streaked window, slipping into the velvet clutches of a lovely dream. It’s in these slow songs and expanded moments that Richardson’s violin is at its most anguished, though here the notes — sliced cleanly through and wrung of every drop of sentiment — seek to mitigate hurt rather than induce it.
At turns cozy and exposed, myopic and panoramic, Mystic Canticle is felt as much as it’s heard. These are compositions that go deep, living in the listener’s subconscious and resonating long past the album’s final notes. Drawn as much from the natural world as from internal landscapes, Richardson’s collection feels both personal and universal. And those many dichotomies — sweet and fierce, dark and bright, restful and adventurous — recommend it as a soundtrack to send off the past year while welcoming in the new one.