In Aleksandra Vrebalov’s The Sea Ranch Songs, the Kronos Quartet takes us on a tour of a special natural landscape that is breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly personal. The Sea Ranch, stretching for ten miles along the northern California coast, is an area defined both by stunning natural beauty and the carefully-planned developments that house its stewards, the Sea Ranch Association. Founded in 1965, the area recently celebrated its 50th anniversary as a community “dedicated to living, building, and interacting with its surroundings in harmonious and responsible ways.”
What an amazing subject for a piece of music! This album makes the fullest use of its subject matter, giving us both a sound recording and a DVD of an artistic film created by Andrew Lyndon set to the music. Vrebalov composed thirteen songs for Kronos Quartet, using audio of personal testimonials from permanent residents of Sea Ranch and those who have made the curation and development of this unique place their work. For my journey through this music, I chose the film, which uses scenes shot on location at the Sea Ranch and a small amount of stylized animation.
All photos credit No Ordinary Resort.
The opening shot of a patch of grass with faraway sea sounds actually seems somewhat plain at the outset, but the frank depiction of this unremarkable part of the landscape scene soon makes sense. A heavily processed recording of the singing of First Nations people is the first form of music we hear, an homage to the Kashia-Pomo Indians that were Sea Ranch’s first residents. The entrance of the quartet is stark and imposing, and the video here is heavily edited, re-colored, and distorted, creating mystic images. As the video returns to its opening shot of grass, each blade seems to have taken on spiritual significance.
The second track, “Fort Ross Chorale,” provides immediate contrast and introduces us to the frontier-like architecture of the settlements. The chorale-like music seems honest and practical. In the third song, “Gratitude,” we hear the voices of Sea Ranch residents, speaking of the natural beauty and inspirational qualities of the landscape, with music from the quartet growing more romantic and swelling with pride and nostalgia. The fourth song’s pizzicato throughout is the perfect accompaniment to recordings of navigational coordinates being read, a sort of laundry list of figures describing the area’s features with scientific precision. Footage of a pristine white barn is the centerpiece for the video of “Numbers,” a musical quantification of the Sea Ranch settlement. Blueprints are the visual focus of the fifth song, “Ideas: Condominium One,” where an architect talks of unique designs for long-roofed, lean-to-like structures. Long notes and electrified sounds from the quartet reflect the designs and huge expanse of the Sea Ranch environment.
The sixth through thirteenth songs reflect on the beauty and motion of the natural landscape, and the spiritual connection Sea Ranchers have with it. Swooping melodic slides in the Kronos violins in “Creatures” are accompanied by video of diving seabirds, and shots of wildlife interlocking with video of underwater fauna. Music with beautiful, open chordal textures plays against spiritual, stained-glass-like imagery in “Chapel, Rainbows,” where we see the sea and its wildlife through the lens of human religious constructs. The eighth song is perhaps the most pure fun to listen to: fast, minor music in the form of an aria and accompaniment set to video of crashing waves and flocks of birds constantly changing direction. The relentlessness of the melody and arpeggiated cello figures in this song, “Elements I,” seem to portray the motion of nature, both free and monotonous. In “Starry Night,” we hear the pitter-patter of ponticello ricochet with twinkling imagery of the night sky. The contemporary-sounding techniques are fascinating here, and mix with electronics to portray the vast expanse of a cosmic light show.
Lyrical music full of counterpoint tells the story of hard work and tired hands in “Ideas: Barn Fugue,” with accompanying testimonials of Sea Ranch barn-builders. An actual recording of coyotes is the arresting sound of “Spirit II,” with a lonely, reverberant piano sound portraying the emptiness of the night. The violin solo that opens the twelfth song, “Elements II,” is expressive and virtuosic, adorned with double stops and sweeping melody. It precedes a chaotic duet, trio, then quartet, with imagery of frothing water and crashing waves. Vrebalov saves the most heartfelt music for the final song, which begins on a pastoral drone against a static shot of the sunset over crashing waves. The music of “Gratitude, Coda” embodies the calmness and fullness of the feelings related in testimonials by Sea Ranch residents, detailing joyous childhood memories and descriptions of their harmonious relationship with nature. There is so much contained in that static shot, and so much about this final music that is profoundly comforting. The virtuosic frenzy of rising figuration that ends the songs in a flourish of leaping water is a complete surprise. That final flourish might be a shock, but it seems to sum up the great musical depth and ability of the vessel for our journey, the fantastic Kronos Quartet, who have created yet another special musical offering of tremendous scope and ambition in collaboration with Aleksandra Verbalov and Andrew Lyndon.