||"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?" (Robert Browning)
Karen Olson, a classically trained violist, has previously ventured into recording original contemporary instrumental (or new age music, if you prefer) compositions for the oft-maligned instrument, the poor stepchild to the violin. That alone merits kudos in my book. Since Kathryn, my partner of 20 years, is also a violist, I am well aware of the tribulations that both musicians who play it and the people who enjoy its very unique tone face. Olson does not shy away from making her love of the string instrument abundantly clear on her recordings, as she did on Convergence, her adventurous collaboration with cellist Michael Fitzpatrick and keyboard player Adam Schiff. However, Convergence was a mere appetizer for A Hero's Journey, one of the most ambitious, daring, and unique albums I've heard in a long time. Here is an album that doesn't just break new ground; it blazes a path to a whole new musical landscape with audaciousness married to artistry.
Olson collaborates on this album with pianist Crispin Barrymore who is also credited with "sampled sounds" and honestly, his wizardry with the latter is the dominant role he plays, much more so than any piano playing he does. It sure sounds to me that Barrymore is wielding a veritable arsenal of sampling keyboards and synthesizers, including beats and rhythm programming. Olson's viola is always in the forefront, but Barrymore does much more than "color" the music's background by adding texture to her melodies. A Hero's Journey is a true collaboration in every sense of the word.
The viola's classical aspect is only one small piece of this recording's puzzle, and that may be understating it, to be honest. The opening "Horizon's Calling" evokes a vast vista and categorizing it most accurately would dictate using the term spacemusic. The second track, "Life's Persuasions," opens with swirling ambient textures and plucked guitar samples as well as Olson's sonorous viola but evolves into a bouncy little chill-out number thanks to some judiciously applied beats. Olson dances above the rhythms with grace and this song is both one of my personal faves and also emblematic of how seamlessly Olson and Barrymore incorporate multiple influences into a single song.
One might think that the music on A Hero's Journey would be tough sledding unless one was a classical music fan, but actually, I think the music's appeal is much broader than that (there is a fair amount of chill-out rhythm here so fans of that genre need to at least check this out). While there is no denying that the music can convey power and drama, this is not "heavy lifting" by any means. When Barrymore's electronics play a more prominent role, as on "Still Crying," the subtlety with which he wields them does not weigh down the viola, but accents it instead.
Also worth mentioning, and I don't I know if it was intentional or just evolved that way, but each track title is two words, except for the concluding "Epilogue" (e.g. "Still Crying," "Facing Fear," "Going Beyond," and "Heaven's Gates").
After nearly 20 years of reviewing music, it takes a lot for me to be left speechless by a recording, but A Hero's Journey did just that the first time I played it. It's not just how the music defies categorization, since that can be said of any number of recordings. Instead, it is how fearlessly Olson and Barrymore venture out into a borderland that is rarely explored; a vast sonic landscape that embraces the contemporary classical aesthetic while also incorporating so many other wrinkles— chill-out, electronica, ambient, and new age, all while maintaining a humanistic and appealing human core. Olson and Barrymore are pioneers on this ground-breaking recording and, as such, are both on a true "hero's journey."