Traditionally the viola has always played more of a supporting role in classical music—crammed between the violin and the cello, its rich, luscious tone sometimes gets lost in larger orchestras. And so, violist and composer Jessica Meyer decided to create a new musical album in which viola is the star—in fact, viola is the entire orchestra.
Meyer’s “Sounds of Being” is an electroacoustic album featuring her own original compositions for viola and loop pedal. The seven pieces utilize the full range of her instrument (and the full range of her pedal) in order to take the listener through different emotional states of being, ranging from blissful joy to tormenting anger—and everything in between.
Meyer’s diverse background in Baroque, classical, jazz, and contemporary music informs her compositions, which combine elements from a wide variety of musical styles to create an innovative, avant-garde sound.
“My music is inspired by sounds I have either performed over the years as a classically trained violist or listened to while driving my car—from Bach, Brahms, and Blues, to Flamenco, Indian Raga, and Appalachian fiddling,” Meyer said.
The loop pedal allows her to multiply her gorgeous, expressive tone, and the delicately layered textures blend to create an ambient one-woman orchestra. Throughout the album, her viola paints beautiful soundscapes of surprisingly varied colors and timbres.
“I love performing fragile timbres, wailing gestures, and percussive grooves to make my instrument sound like a drum, an electric guitar, an Indian sarangi, or an extension of my own voice,” Meyer said. “The loop pedal helps me combine all of these sounds together to form an entire orchestra of emotion.”
One of the simplest human emotions is captured in Meyer’s “Hello,” a piece which explores the simple and innocent joy of truly connecting with another person.
“This is that warm and fuzzy feeling you have when you’re spending time with a person and they move from just being an acquaintance to something more meaningful,” she said of the piece. “Nothing is particularly said, but the connection is clearly felt.”
A gentle opening melody flows sweetly and simply, rising higher and higher in pitch like the butterflies you get in your stomach when you’re around a new crush. The piece develops into a series of charming, happy, hopeful variations on a simple theme, capturing the innocence and joy of truly falling for someone.
“Into the Vortex” transports the listener to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum: anger. Meyer describes it as a “bluegrass-meets-death-metal” piece about the way it feels when you allow negative energy to suck you in.
The piece starts out soft, calm, and inquisitive, but a little over a minute in is when you fall into the vortex, spinning and whirling, picking up speed until everything is frenzied and chaotic. Strong, visceral bow strokes and extended techniques create an aggravated, rhythmic texture that encompasses the listener in a blur of fury.
Meyer’s “Touch” explores yet another uniquely human feeling: the body’s response to human contact.
“This piece strives to illuminate what happens inside your body on a cellular level when this basic human need is met,” Meyer said.
The piece begins with dramatic pizzicato hairpins which gradually give way to delicately overlapping melodic phrases, creating a constantly shifting soundscape which is grounded in its softly pulsing rhythm. The music repeatedly swells in intensity and shrinks back into calmness, imitating the vivid and varied perception of touch.
The album closes with the dramatic “Duende,” a musical exploration of passion and power. Broad, sweeping bow strokes soar across a wispy, high-pitched backdrop, with Meyer’s freeform solo playing steadily growing in intensity throughout. She layers in a lively, repetitive percussive groove to serve as a vibrant and captivating musical backdrop for her dynamic melodies, ending album with a bold and beautiful bang.
“‘Duende’ is a concept the poet Lorca wrote about—the moment when someone is inhabited by a mysterious and powerful force that everyone around them can feel, but no one can explain,” Meyer said. “This last piece is the quest for that moment; when the spirits rise up from the soles of your feet, and you don’t give a damn about anything anymore…and you just play.”