by Maggie Molloy
I have always considered poetry to be the distant cousin of music. After all, both combine elements of rhythm, sound, lyricism, and storytelling. However, after listening through the OCTET Ensemble’s performance of “Scatter My Ashes,” I thought perhaps these two artistic mediums may be even closer than cousins; perhaps they could even be brother and sister.
“Scatter My Ashes” is a series of five poems written by Sue Susman about life, death, and darkness. Her brother, composer and keyboardist William Susman, then transformed the poems into a five-movement composition for OCTET, his New York-based contemporary music ensemble.
OCTET is essentially a jazzy big-band-turned-a-little-smaller: their sound features one of each instrument in the brass section plus rhythm. The ensemble is composed of soprano vocalist Mellissa Hughes, saxophonist Demetrius Spaneas, trumpeter Mike Gurfield, trombonist Alan Ferber, composer and keyboardist William Susman, pianist Elaine Kwon, double bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, and drummer and percussionist Greg Zuber.
“Scatter My Ashes” is the title track on OCTET’s debut album, where it is brilliantly framed by three other works which combine a neoclassical sound with jazz and pop elements. Hughes’ dazzling vocals soar above each piece, transitioning flawlessly from singing lyrical poetry to percussive wordless vocals depending on the composition.
The title track lays Hughes’ crystal clear voice over a relatively sparse, brass-dominated musical texture. The result is a harmonious mixture of minimalism and jazz, filled with swirling brass melodies and tender, lyrical vocals. Hughes’ voice amplifies the sorrow, hope, and drama of the poetry, making each word glow with very minimal vibrato.
The album’s opening track, the three-movement “Camille,” plays on the intermingling of vocal and instrumental timbres, using wordless vocals as a melodic and, at times, percussive element. The circling, minimalist melodies and vocal rhythms of the first movement give way to the piece’s somber, slower, jazzier middle movement before picking up the pace for the triumphant final section, a repetitive, rhythmic return to the minimal music aesthetic.
Another highlight is the ensemble’s “Piano Concerto” which, of course, is no ordinary piano concerto. Rather than showcasing a flashy soloistic piano part, the piece carefully blends subdued piano melodies with wordless vocals and brassy highlights to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The result is a beautiful and texturally fascinating sonic landscape which fully encompasses the listener in its sinuous melodies and jazz-infused rhythms.
The album finishes with “Moving in to an Empty Space,” a series of three more poems written by Sue Susman which her brother set to music for OCTET. The poignant poems explore themes of loneliness and isolation in the everyday human experience, the expressive lyrics further complimented by the softly sparkling background melodies. The pieces showcase Hughes’ impressive vocal range over a brass-dominated backdrop.
Though the entire album runs just under 45 minutes, each note is perfectly crafted and expertly executed. The precision and accuracy of each instrument’s part is a true testament to the musicianship OCTET’s members.
Without a single moment wasted, the album stands as a timeless combination of contemporary classical music, minimalism, and jazz into a profound and dynamic multidisciplinary work.