by Peter Tracy
Even at their most outgoing, instruments like the celesta tend to hide in larger ensembles, coming out of the texture for little moments here and there. Perhaps this is because the celesta tends to be a quiet instrument: its tuned metal bars give off a delicate ring that is subtle and long lasting, but won’t compete with a horn section or timpani.
On his latest album, appropriately titled Celesta, Los Angeles-based composer Michael Jon Fink moves the instrument to center stage. Rather than burying the instrument in a larger ensemble, Fink applies his sparse, tranquil, and quietly mysterious musical language to this often-overlooked instrument, creating what is among the largest ever collections of music for solo celesta.
Comprised of twelve short pieces performed by the composer, this is an album in which less is more. Ranging from under one minute long to just over six, the pieces as a whole form something of an arc, at times melancholic, joyful, nostalgic, or pensive, but always quiet and spacious.
This suite of sorts begins with “Call,” a gently lilting melody over bell-like arpeggiations that is reminiscent of a tune from an ancient music box. “Cold Pastoral” features two lines in sparse counterpoint, with a simple and repetitive, yet slowly varying melodic phrase that brings to mind a lake frozen in the dead of winter. The pensive stillness takes on a nostalgic tone in “Bells,” with pentatonic melodies that twinkle like a wind chime. “From the Singing River” turns things in a more mysterious direction, with little melodic variations that seems to circle around without ever arriving at their final destination.
The following two pieces, “First Star, Last Star” and “Post-Impression” continue this trend, tending toward pensive arpeggiated melodies with plenty of space to let the instrument’s soft tones reverberate. By “Ruins,” things have settled into a meditative trance, with the title helping to inspire a feeling of something that has been lost to the past. Slightly more active pieces follow, with the tenuously hopeful “Sunless” incorporating some of the lower notes of the five-octave celesta and the eerie “Nocturne for the Three Times” drifting through incredibly sparse and atmospheric textures.
“Softly Yellowed Moon” is equally enigmatic, with two lines providing melody and harmony that wind their way down into the longest piece on the album, “Triptych.” Loosely divided into three parts, the piece begins with a quietly wandering melody over a left-hand ostinato before moving into what is the most openly joyful music of the album. Eventually, the music reaches an almost animated conclusion featuring crescendos in tight harmony and the celesta sounding more bell-like than ever. The appropriately named “After the End,” then, seems to question this borderline excitement, leaving us with a somber and unsettlingly harmonized reflection.
Still, the album avoids drawing a clear conclusion. Is there a story here in the space between the notes, or are we just meant to reflect on the round tones of the celesta as they fade into silence? Each piece feels like a small and crystalline world of its own, inviting the listener to discover their own meaning for themselves.