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Compassion by Sangeeta Kaur
- posted by Jonathan Widran on 10/2/2019
When it comes to a necessary shift of perspective, especially when it’s music that encourages the heavy shifting, sometimes timing is everything. Perhaps not so coincidentally, I started immersing in Compassion, the exquisite, soul enveloping and empowering fourth album by new age/classical crossover singer/songwriter Sangeeta Kaur, the day after its official release August 3.

Everyone knows the details of what America and particularly the cities of El Paso and Dayton endured that weekend, so I need not delve into them. But hearing the violent, heartbreaking news jolted me out of the lovely, transportive state of inner peace and relaxation that Sangeeta helped facilitate. I regret to say that my primitive brain took over for a few moments, with the worst emotions possible – fear, anger, and questions filled with gloom, doom and a sense of despair and hopelessness.

But then, the calm inner voice took over – the one that, ironically enough was soaring just moments before the text alert in one of the album’s most magical pieces, “Transcendence,” a lushly textured swirl of Eru Matsumoto’s divinely tuned cello, the angelic voices of the Hungarian Studio Choir and Sangeeta’s elevating, operatic lead wordless vocals. That voice reminded me that the darkness of some human souls is always outweighed by the universal potential for Compassion that Sangeeta is reflecting upon in her extraordinary work.

When I turned the music back on, these ten eclectic tracks – produced by Sangeeta and Nicolas Neidhardt and also featuring the classical influenced caressing grace of the Hungarian Studio Orchestra – provided the perfect soundtrack to images of caring people lining up to donate blood to the surviving victims.

Listening further, getting swept up in singing along with Sangeeta and the choir on the Tibetan Buddhist Mantra “Om Tara Tuttare Ture Soha” (designed to help overcome mental, physical, and emotional blockages) and the hypnotic, soothing English original “Rise Up,” my musings went deeper. Imagine if the human mind that is capable of both love and hatred, kindness and cruelty, compassion and heartlessness, attuned to the more positive vibrations the Universe has to offer and listened to the kind of calming yet spirit energizing music that Sangeeta has been releasing since Niguma (2016). It may seem crazy, but I think it’s better to take the new age version of the John Lennon route than give in to fear and paranoia.

Even if it’s on a normal, wonderful day in the life, anyone who tunes in deeply to Compassion will be richly rewarded in a multitude of spiritual and sonic ways – an intricate soundscape rich synthesis that includes piano, keyboards, bass, percussion, harp and carefully placed crystal singing bowls (most notably on “Voices and Crystals,” a hauntingly textured blend of soaring and grounded voices with Sangeeta chiming occasionally on the bowls.

A song whose message bears repeated listening in times like these (because then it can best imprint on our subconscious minds) is “We Are One,” where the singer conveys the idea without literal words, only the echoing, atmospheric voice of an angel and an intense burst of symphonic and percussive energy. There are two other resonant mantras of note, set to music by Sangeeta and Neidhardt – “Om Vajra Sattva Hum” (all about potent purification) and the childlike, impossible not to immediately chant along to “Sa Re Sa Sa,” designed to take negativity away from within oneself, awakening to the Infinite creative energy to burn away obstacles to achieving higher consciousness.

Although there’s an overriding universal consciousness emerging throughout, some pieces, like the hypnotic piano and vocal piece “May the Long Time Sun,” are gentler and more intimate in nature, allowing the crystalline purity of Sangeeta’s voice to touch places even further within.

With a name given to her by a yoga master that translates to “Princess of Music and Harmony,” the world-renowned Peace Song Award winner – born Teresa Mai – is a revelation and an artist we need more than ever in a world where the news of the day is nothing less than chaotic. Her musical mission, fulfilled and brought to fruition so powerfully and eloquently once again on Compassion - bears repeating: “My soul has a commitment to infuse the dharma and ancient wisdom into everything I do,” she says. “I want to be available to those who are ready for it. The songs must serve a true purpose and for anyone being challenged in these times, I am committed to sharing music that uplifts and inspires the soul.”
Rating: Excellent
Cupid Blindfolded by Michael Whalen
- posted by Jonathan Widran on 10/2/2019
MICHAEL WHALEN, Cupid Blindfolded
One of the keys to writing thoughtful pieces on new age solo piano recordings is understanding the artist’s mindset, intention and inspiration. So with Michael Whalen’s stunning, thoughtfully rendered new collection Cupid Blindfolded: Solo Piano – his first solo piano outing in 20 years – I was excited to learn that the prolific recording artist and two time Emmy winning TV composer posted an insightful “making of video” on his home page.

Yet I have to disagree strongly with something Whalen says in a voiceover as we see him walking through a snowy forest area on the property around Will Ackerman’s legendary Imaginary Road Studios, where the project was recorded. Comparing himself to others who dedicate tens of thousands of hours to mastering the mechanical aspects of playing the instrument, he says, “The funny thing is, I don’t think I’m a pianist.”

Perhaps that’s true if we’re comparing an expressive melodic artist like him to classical geniuses focused on precision and thousands of notes. Earnest as it is, though, Whalen’s over the top humility seems limiting and self-deprecating in light of the visceral yet transcendent experience he is presenting in this this ten-track collection. Those cats he refers to may play 20 hours a day, but they can’t create the kind of romantic magic he renders on these ten tracks – an achievement rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that the album was recorded live in the studio with six video cameras surrounding him and presented to us with out piano edits. Helping Whalen (who produced the project) is another remarkable artist and engineer, Imaginary Road mainstay Tom Eaton.

Cupid Blindfolded is a special release in Whalen’s 25 year-plus catalog for another reason besides the uniqueness of his return to solo piano recordings. It marks his first venture on his own label Solace Records, his own label under Real Music, a newly acquired division of Cutting Edge Group. This follows an incredible history of being on a multitude of classic new age labels, starting with Phantom of the Forest and Great African Moments in the mid-90s on Narada Cinema’s Nature series.

Whalen’s return to heartfelt soul truth telling via acoustic piano is driven by the Shakespearean title concept. In Act 1, Scene 1 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we hear, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is a winged Cupid painted blind.” The Bard found a deeply thoughtful and poetic way to say, through his character Helena, that love is a matter of the heart – more dependent on an emotional bond rather than a physical attraction. In all the ways that matter, Whalen’s Cupid Blindfolded is the musical equivalent of a passionate Shakespearean sonnet, with emotions rendered directly from the heart, without words getting in the way.

Whalen reflects this emotional bond from the graceful meditative opening chords of the opening title track, whose delicate balance of tender passion and whimsy sets the tone for the entire album. And we travel on from there, feeling the gentle seduction of “All of My Heart, All of My Soul,” a bright and lively “Reflection of My Affection” and the stark, deep emotions that come gently (sometimes after a split second of hesitation) in that moment of connection “At The Touch of a Lover.” Whalen’s beautiful journey includes a powerful, darkness meets light ode to “The Muse,” which comes on the wings of angels as easily as it rides on pure visceral energy; and an introspective acknowledgement that sometimes love happens out of pure magical moments of unfettered serendipity.

The pianist (yes, Michael, I’m calling you that!) also takes us on spiritual journeys to feel the subtle joys of “Sunrise in the Desert” (inspired by a trip to Arizona a few years ago) and the gorgeous natural charms of the “Isle of Skye,” which inspires some of Whalen’s most intense, percussive and expansively cinematic playing. It’s also fun getting caught with him “Standing in the Rain,” as he creatively uses the ivories to convey alternately convey drizzling and cloudbursts.
Rating: Excellent
The Lightness of Dark by Fiona Joy
- posted by Jonathan Widran on 10/2/2019
The Lightness of Dark
The late Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Australian instrumental greats Rebecca Daniel and Fiona Joy Hawkins place this insightful nugget of wisdom on the back cover of The Lightness of Dark: An Album About Loss and Mourning to illuminate their collective creative and spiritual vision behind the project – their first official dual album after many years of dynamic live and in studio collaborations. Pushing the often-stringent boundaries of new age and contemporary classical music, the two explore the many facets of life and loss, the search for something positive in the crippling shadows and the potential beauty that can emerge from mourning and sadness.

Rebecca and Fiona will be supporting the release of the album with a highly anticipated dual tour in Fall 2019.

Both Rebecca (violin/voice/piano) and Fiona (piano/voice) believe that when real life becomes art, experiences can be shared, learned from and resonate with others who are going through similar challenging situations in their lives. Coinciding with their ongoing desire over the years to co-write an album, they found themselves immersed in the subject of loss and mourning and both were channelling the effects of difficult personal experiences into the music they were playing. They quickly realized their intent, ideas and subject matter were identical and that their visions for what this project could ultimately be melded perfectly.

Featuring seven pieces composed by Rebecca and five by Fiona, The Lightness of Dark weaves its lush, cathartic narrative via pieces of varying instrumentation depending on the emotions the two are expressing. The opening track “Heavenly Voices” blends string quartet (featuring Rebecca, violinist Elizabeth Cooney, violin/violist Sam Harding and cellist Trish McMeekin) with organ, piano and vocals. Other songs feature solo piano (“Ghost, Insanity, Angels”), piano/violin duet (“Elegy”), piano with quartet pads (“Lake of Contemplation”), string quartet only (“Interwoven Threads of Chance”), string quartet featuring piano (“Empty Moments”) and other combinations uniquely fitted for the compositions they imbue.

“We believe our album will connect with everyone because we all experience loss in varying forms,” Fiona says. “It’s not just the loss of life. It can be the loss of youth, a loved one, a pet, your health…Life changing events where we are left to mourn because of loss. People only face their own issues when you lead the to a safe place to do this. We both wanted to explore the lightness within the dark and the idea of loss and mourning because we share the belief that there is sadness in beauty and beauty in sadness. Finding that beauty is paramount to moving forward in the face of loss. The rhythmic exploration of tolling bells gives a sense of time and its relentless forward movement, while the interwoven layers of piano with string quartet are melodically rich and soothing. There is a little madness in the music I’m currently writing, it only pops out of the calmness momentarily, but enough to know that there is uncertainty in everything we hear, feel and experience.”

Rebecca’s fascination with Trauermusik (mourning or funeral music) began with the study of Paul Hindemith. Hindemith wrote a famous piece of Trauermusik for solo viola and string orchestra and since performing this in the UK, Rebecca has embraced rich and layered sounds. She says, “I drew inspiration for the ‘Theme and Variations on a Ground Bass’ from Hindemith's ‘Trauermusik’ and Purcell's ‘Dido's Lament’, which I have performed in the UK. Both pieces are powerfully tragic, and yet the beauty that comes through is deeply moving and engaging, in a way that leaves you uplifted, and wanting the experience again. On the title track ‘Lightness of Dark,’ for instance, I use viola as a solo voice, as did Hindemith, and a simple descending bass line in the strings, as a repetitive foundation for vocal lines, as used by Purcell. The piece is written for string quartet, piano and vocalist, and uses repetition and simplicity to convey an emptiness and yearning, juxtaposed with rich chords in the strings and piano. The listener should be left emotional, yet content and at peace.”

While The Lightness of Dark is most richly experienced in its entirety as the duo converse and ultimately merge their expressions into a singular statement of grace, several pieces stand out thematically. Rebecca’s emotive, melodic and circular “Interwoven Threads of Chance” is about the idea of chance, and the interwoven sequence of events that leads to any one outcome. It reflects the sequence of events that led to the violinist’s chance meeting with her husband – contemplating, if any one thing had changed, would she have met him? Fiona’s solo piece “Ghosts, Insanity, Angels” is a suite of three pieces written for an earlier album that she had always wanted to join together as a clear account of the multiple losses she experienced in 2016, so she took the three separate stories and re-arranged them as a suite.

Fiona’s “A Bit in the Middle” (piano with quartet pads) explores the idea of time and existence before we arrive and after we die, contemplating the spark that caused the bit in the middle we know as life. Rebecca’s “Empty Moments” (string quartet feat. piano) is a new age masterwork about empty spaces and moments in of time one feels after something or someone ione – the unfillable hole that is left with loss.
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