||Released 2017 on Spiraling Music
Composer: Merrill Collins
Chief Recording Engineer: Ethan Carlson
Creative Consultant: Suzanne Doucet
Liner Notes: Kabir Sehgal
Merrill Collins: grand piano
Laura Halladay: flute
Maksim Velichkin: cello
It’s difficult to know where to start in reviewing the album Ethereal Escapes. It’s not just that the music (a beautiful fusion of classical ensemble and new age) defies easy description or categorization. It’s more that coming up with words seems to diminish how special this recording actually is. On the cover of the album, it’s described as Instrumental Modern Contemporary Uplifting New Age Music and, while that may be an apt “bullet point” definition, it doesn’t come close to capturing the heart and soul of this album. Luckily, I have my twenty years of reviewing music behind me so, of course, this will not be an obstacle for yours truly (uh huh!).
Ethereal Escapes combines the considerable talents of the three artists listed above. The album is a sequel to the 2016 release, Echappées Ethériques, which is alluded to since this album is subtitled Echappées Ethériques II. Thus, this is a sequel to the earlier recording.
I must have played Ethereal Escapes at least ten times and each time it hit me how seldom do three musicians perform together in such a symbiotic fashion as if they are of the same mind and same body, operating in unison to express a singular musical vision – and the vision represented on this album is daring and beautiful. Throughout the recording, all three artists take turns in center stage, although that is a relative statement since most of the time, it seems like they are all pirouetting around each other equally, forming a unique neo-chamber sound that seems to be all of a piece.
The album was borne out of three stories Merrill Collins wrote during 1987, the year of the Harmonic Convergence. The liner notes are fascinating reading, although it’s almost too heady for me (meant as a compliment—this is deep stuff). One interesting visual aspect of the physical album (undetectable on a website, I would assume) is the positioning of the track titles, which are situated as if to tell a story-poem, as it were. Each song title is indented in a specific way to form a sentence of sorts. For example, the first four tracks become the following (I am omitting the upper case letters intentionally):
The fountains of jewels activated, our ears tingled with every heartbeat, listening with our elders.
Addressing the music itself goes, depending on the track, the mood may be gently playful, airy and ethereal, or somber and reflective. Despite the shifting mood, though, this is a cohesive album from start to finish. Overall, the music has a very distinct flowing nature to it, almost organic in nature. Perhaps think of it as being a leaf in a stream. I strongly suggest playing the entire album all the way through, not just a track at a time (even though there are defined spaces between selections). Some songs have a particularly pleasing pastoral element, spring-like in fact, e.g. “Our Ears Tingled” (the tingling is conveyed by uncredited bell trees). On “With Every Heartbeat,” the evocation is more subdued whereas “Listening With Our Elders,” features a more serious mood tinted with a touch of sadness.
If space and time allowed, I would try to describe more tracks in detail, but in some ways, as mentioned earlier, even the best prose does not do this music justice. Whether an affinity for classical music (not orchestral but small ensemble) is a requirement I can’t say. I enjoy classical music so any classical influences (which often coalesce with new age) are quite enjoyable for me. However it is characterized, though, Ethereal Escapes is strikingly beautiful and I would hope that its popularity will reach far beyond classical music fans. All three artists play their instruments splendidly, yet no one ever steps so far out in front as to distract from the organic nature of the “whole”. I imagine that I am far from finished with listening to this excellent recording. One last item worth mentioning is that 10% of the sales proceeds will go to the Institute of Individual and World Peace.