Album: Sun & Moon
In Brief: A double album with intricate, harp-driven baroque pop compositions on one side and several lengthy classical pieces on the other certainly asks a lot of the listener, but Timbre has a foot firmly planted in both worlds and she clearly had no shortage of inspiration when exploring the relationship between the two. I may never fully understand this album, but I really appreciate the inherent beauty and interconnectedness of it all.
I’m about to embark on a review of Timbre‘s double album Sun & Moon that will probably seem ill-advised. Not because the music I’m going to critique is in any way controversial or because I have anything strongly negative to say about it, but simply because it’s a concept album twice the length of a standard LP, most of which is in a genre – classical music – where I can’t claim much of any expertise. Merely listening to this thing all the way through was a daunting task for me the first several times, so I certainly never thought I’d have the presence of mind to actually review it. Yet for all the effort its taken to get used to its mostly unhurried pace, its slowly morphing song structures that can do a lot of unexpected things over the course of eight, ten or even sixteen minutes in one extreme case, I’ve found myself returning to this one a lot more than I would have guessed at first. I figure if I’m listening to something that much, I ought to at least try to share my experience with it in some coherent fashion, even if there’s no way I’ll pick up on all of the themes and little nuances that your average fan of classical music probably would.
Timbre Cierpke is a harpist, vocalist, and songwriter hailing from that wonderful enclave of diverse musical talent known as Nashville, Tennessee. She’s apparently quite a few records into her discography at this point, but Sun & Moon was the first time she had been brought to my attention, despite having heard her contributions to such unlikely acts as mewithoutYou in the past. (Yes, this is the second time this month I’ve name-dropped mwY in a review, because I discovered Lauryn Peacock in pretty much the same fashion.) Whether the mononym “Timbre” is meant to refer to her as a solo act, her three-piece band, or the extended family of choir members and other players who round out her ensemble, really depends on the song, as this record’s sound ranges from intimate solo pieces to full-on orchestral overtures. So if I’m inconsistent about referring to Timbre as “her” or as “they”, that’s why.
Timbre the band seems to be the focus of the Sun disc, which consists of pieces written and performed by the three core members, and these for the most part are baroque pop tunes, sometimes of a surprisingly percussive and even – dare I say it – catchy nature. You won’t confuse it for a straight-up pop album any time soon, given the patience required to dig into some of its longer and more intricate tracks, but its intent is definitely to merge modern pop sensibilities (of the more “indie” variety, I’d say) with classical instrumentation. Joanna Newsom is the obvious go-to comparison here, though I’d say Timbre’s vocals are more “classically” pretty and her songs aren’t quite as byzantine as the few albums of Newsom’s that I’ve managed to wade through over the years. Occasionally I hear flashes of Björk, particularly her Vespertine album, and maybe even a few of my favorite Iona instrumentals, but I’m gradually realizing that I’m most comfortable comparing Timbre’s work to that of My Brightest Diamond. There’s a similar “motherly” quality to the way both artists write songs, with an occasional dark undercurrent, though a lot of MBD’s stuff sounds downright mainstream compared to Timbre’s interpretation of “pop”, so don’t take that comparison too far. I find this first disc to be quite engrossing despite the occasional segment where a song goes on for a little too long and my attention starts to wander. It’s the main reason why I come back to the entire album as often as I do.
The Moon disc is where the training wheels come off and Timbre dives headlong into classical music. While Sun‘s compositions could get rather lengthy and ornate, three of Moon‘s six tracks are over ten minutes long, only three of them feature lyrics, and only one of those three is actually sung in English. This is where I’m reminded that, as much as I clamor for variance and inventiveness in the realm of pop music, my brain is still wired to look for obvious “hooks” and compositions that are broken up into more bite-size segments with recognizable structures that we in the modern age consider to be “songs”, and classical music just has a wider range of modes to operate in, from pieces that go through several distinct movements without repeating much of anything that you’d easily recognize, to simple mantras that spend most of their time repeating themselves outside of the verse/chorus structure I’ve come to depend on. It would be stupid to criticize a form of music that existed long before such structures became commonplace for not adhering to them, so admitting that I like this disc a little less than Sun is merely a confession that to some degree, my brain has been pretty strongly wired by the conventions of modern popular music. I think it’s healthy to try a little something like this on for size every now and then, as it stretches my horizons (and brings back vague memories of the various classical movements I had to learn all about in my sixth grade music class), but I can’t pretend to have any intelligent critiques to make at this point – I’ll simply be summarizing the content and stating which parts of it resonate with me the most. Which I guess is what I spend most of my time doing in these reviews anyway – it’s just here where I want to stress the most that I don’t expect to be considered an authority on the matter.
Despite my preference for Sun and how I think that would probably be a satisfying listen entirely on its own, I don’t feel right listening to it without giving Moon equal time, because a lot of little musical and structural themes are reflected between both halves of the album and I geek out as I begin to slowly recognize those over time. So Moon is definitely still a worthwhile listen even for someone like me who is more “classically-challenged”. It’s just more of a cerebral exercise for me than an emotionally involved one, if I’m honest with myself.
DISC ONE: SUN
One of my all-time favorite instrumental tracks – heck, probably the first piece of music I ever fell in love with that didn’t have any words – is “Heaven’s Bright Sun” by Iona, which much like this track, tries to emulate the transition from pre-dawn stillness to an explosion of light and activity and joy once then sun has come up. This one isn’t as epic in its scope (though plenty else on this record is!), but I’m still drawn to that same basic idea here. The violin and cello come slowly creeping in, along with a few notes from the harp, building up the anticipation, and over the course of three and a half minutes, the tempo gradually increases and eventually the drums come in and it’s this huge, intricately woven testament to the beauty of that huge fiery ball of gas that we orbit here on Planet Earth. I love the interplay between the harp and strings once this thing really gets going. It’s a fitting intro, both thematically and for technical reasons, as it gives us a strong taste of what Timbre and her band can really accomplish.
2. Song of the Sun
The most accessible (and “poppy”, if you want to call it that) track on the album finds Timbre singing from the point of view of the Sun, looking down on Earth with a doting, motherly sort of tone to her voice as she sweetly chants, “Oh, little seed/Oh, dying root/Oh, tender leaves/Oh, silver shoot”, as if to raise her little seedlings from the dirt by sheer force of will. The drums and probably more prominent here than anywhere else on the album, giving the song an almost tribal feel at times, and while I think this could be jarring to fans of pure classical music, it’s heavenly to my ears, because I adore the interplay between the drums and the classical instrumentation. Timbre’s harp, her sweet vocals, and the round she ends up singing with her backing vocalists near the end of the song don’t get buried at all despite the sense mix. The result is one of the most refreshing and life-affirming tunes I’ve heard in a very long time.
3. Your Hands Hold Home
This one took a bit of patience to get into. I thought this early in the album was a bit too soon to drop us into an 8-minute ballad at first, but don’t be thrown by the track length and the initially slow, methodical pace of it. The way it moves back and forth between its calm, patiently plucked verse and the intricate, somewhat offbeat refrain (once accentuated by some beautiful percussion work) is incredibly satisfying. They throw in some glockenspiel and maybe even an accordion, as well as some male backing vocals that come in about halfway through, and once again it all melts together into a gorgeous celebration. This time it seems to be about a wandering soul realizing the comforts of home, being thankful that she’s given the freedom to wander, but always being welcomed and refreshed when she chooses to return. The subtle, shifting hues of this song’s melody and the luscious instrumental crescendo at the end never fail to move me, like a fanfare for a storied heroine returning from a long and arduous journey.
4. The Persistence of First Love
What is the name of that instrument that’s kind of like an accordion, but more box-shaped and it has more of a regal, organ-like tone to it when you squeeze it? I suck at naming the instruments I’m hearing sometimes. Anyway, that instrument is the backdrop for this song, and there’s not a whole lot to it other than some long, sustained chords from that instrument and Timbre slowly singing a sweet, romantic poem over them. This song is blanketed in feelings of comfort, security, and adoration, and I’m immediately drawn to it for those reasons. At just under three minutes, it feels a bit like an interlude considering the huge songs surrounding it, but it’s a really good one. It reminds me of Björk dropping the extremely intimate “A History of Touches” into the middle of Vulnicura, though the mood here is obviously much more peaceful and optimistic.
5. Singing and Singing
This would be one of the more melancholy tracks on the album, which at first would seem to contradict the sunny theme of its first disc, but it’s important to remember (and I really should have mentioned this above) that the record was loosely inspired by George MacDonald‘s short story Day Boy and Night Girl: the Love Story of Photogen and Nycteris, in which the two lead characters are kept separate from each other by a witch who only lets the girl see the night and the boy see the day. Some of Nycteris’s pain is felt in this track, in which she asserts to her wicked stepmother that she’s being denied the ability to realize her full potential: “You don’t seem to see all of me/Only what is dark/Why must I become the rose/That only shows its thorns?” Ultimately, the despair gives way to a sense of empowerment, as she realizes, “I can be even when you don’t see”. Musically, this track doesn’t engage me as much as some of the others – not that it isn’t achingly beautiful, but the tempo and structure are a lot more loosely defined here, so while there’s a slow-burning intro and an emotional climax and all that, and Timbre even gets to hit some operatic high notes near the end, there isn’t a central melodic “hook” that keeps me coming back to it. Again, that’s my pop-oriented brain trying to adjust to what is arguably more of a classical-inspired piece of music.
6. Of Waving Woods and Waters Wild
This short instrumental is actually one of my favorite tracks on the album. No words are really needed for the playful pairing of harp and acoustic guitar to bring to mind a peaceful forest setting with a rambling river meandering through it. I like how there’s rhythmic complexity to be found within it despite the rather repetitive structure. Something in the notion of exploring side paths based on a central theme and then returning triumphantly to it just makes my brain happy.
7. I Am in the Garden
Next up is the third of five – count ’em, five! – very long ballads on the first half of this project. Timbre surprises us here by taking a backseat to a male vocalist for the first part of this song, and I could almost swear I’ve heard a duet of this nature on a My Brightest Diamond record, but the musical language here is different. This one has a very medieval feel to it, especially with both lovers pining, “I am in the garden, come find me, I want to be found”. I guess there’s a Romeo & Juliet sort of feel to it, since it brings to mind an illicit meeting at dawn or dusk between these two youngsters, who are forbidden from being part of each other’s worlds and can only meet in this secret space where the two bleed together. To call this one a slow-burner is an understatement – the first four minutes or so are incredibly sparse, focusing more on the dramatic vocal presentation and using the harp mostly to establish a simple chord structure, then midway through Timbre’s playing starts to become a bit more fluid and the vocals come to a restrained but pretty crescendo. I didn’t understand why the image of a girl singing to herself in solitude mattered so much just two tracks ago, but as the two now call out to each other, “Sing with me”, it starts to make a lot more sense.
8. Chicago Pier
This track picks up so effortlessly where “Garden” left off, with a similar slow pace to both that track and “Singing”, that I’m tempted to think it might have been a mistake to put these three tracks so closely together, but no worries, this one differentiates itself quickly enough. This time around I’m noticing some horns in the mix; that’s an element that hasn’t come to the forefront thus far in the album. What I remember most about this track (despite the oddity of a modern place like “Chicago” being mentioned in the title and nowhere in the song itself – hey, don’t shatter my illusion of the story taking place in some far off, fairytale land!) is how surprising its gradual build from an intimate opening to a truly loud and exciting finale is. You just can’t anticipate how this one is going to end based on how it begins, and again, I largely have a modern drum kit to thank for that, but it’s unusual to hear all of the tumbles and rolls and other rhythmic tricks from this sort of a crescendo paired with nimble harp plucking and a choral/orchestral type of ensemble. The sense of longing communicated in this song reaches a fever pitch as Timbre ponders some sort of a loss then wonders, “Maybe this will be given back to me”. It’s like a prayer ascending into the blazing noon sky, and the communication with whoever’s up there is perhaps more important to her than getting some sort of a tangible result: “All my hope is who you are, not how you answer.”
9. Morning Birds
Like “The Persistence of First Love”, this one’s more of a brief poem set to music than a fully realized piece. At two minutes, it’s the shortest track on either disc. There’s a vaguely dissonant, droning sort of sound that seems to be the only instrumentation backing up her lonely voice – it reminds me of the resonance you get from running your finger along the rim of a wine glass filled to a precise amount to get the right pitch, except the pitches are ever so slightly off just to give it that feeling of mystique and disorientation. Not really one of my favorites on this record, but it transitions beautifully into Side A’s finale.
10. Night Girl: Nycteris Sees the Sun
Man, I adore the harp melody that opens this song. It just drips with dramatic tension. More clearly than any other track, this one establishes the motivation of the Nycteris character: “If I have only seen night, can I imagine the day?” It’s a slow, sweeping, cinematic statement of intent to see the sun or die trying, at least until midway through, when once again the harp and drums get whipped up into a maelstrom of activity and time signature bending shenanigans. I’m hearing an oboe and some other woodwinds as this one spirals up to its glorious climax, which is one of the most exciting moments on the record. Just when you think it’s winding down, they take that riveting melody for one more spin, only to then return to the song’s opening motif for a very classy outro to Disc One.
DISC TWO: MOON
11. Sunset (O Lux Beata Trinitas)
Even though the transition is almost seamless if you dive straight into Disc Two after finishing the first one, you’ll definitely notice something different as a choir begins to sing in Latin, celebrating the blessed light of the Trinity, bringing more explicitly religious content to the fore for the first time on the record and dropping the backing instrumentation entirely for a purely vocal piece. This goes on for nearly eleven minutes, and while it engages my attention right away with those angelic notes resounding throughout the concert hall they’re performing in, it does start to get a bit too sleepy for my tastes in its softer passages, which seem to take up most of the middle of the track. I’m willing to bet this sort of vocal arrangement is orders of magnitude more difficult to compose, arrange, and rehearse to get it to the fine-tuned precision presented here even some of the more intricate pieces on disc one, so credit where it’s due – Timbre’s hard work is clearly evident. Choir and Glee Club geeks will probably get more out of this than I do, since my tastes in acapella music tend to run a bit more modern. If you’re averse to really high-pitched female vocals, you’ll probably want to skip this one, though personally I find that aspect of this piece appealing.
12. Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies
While the name of this track makes it an obvious companion to the first disc’s “Of Waving Woods and Waters Wild”, all that the two really have in common is that they’re short instrumental pieces highlighting the harp. (“Short” being a relative term – only on a project like this would my brain categorize a four-minute track as such.) Since for the most part we can’t rely on lyrics to tell the story on this disc, we have to listen more carefully to the music to get the intended mood and setting, and this one does a pretty good job of slowly taking in the wonder of the night sky. Because it’s deliberately unhurried and maintains the peaceful and slightly melancholy mood throughout, I don’t tend to remember specific melodic passages so much as the general aura of the song, but it’s a space I don’t mind occupying for a few minutes, so good job overall.
13. St. Cecelia: An Ode to Music
I’ll admit that this is the track I have the hardest time being patient with. Not that there isn’t plenty going on here – it’s quite heavy on the flutes and what my brain has decided to call the more “fluttery” instrumental sounds, and it’s got some big crescendoes that play out over the course of thirteen and a half minutes. It’s also the closest thing we get to a coherent story, considering that this is the only point on Disc Two where we get English lyrics. But I don’t know, I would almost prefer it if I couldn’t understand them, because the highly operatic style in which they’re delivered kind of makes the whole idea (honoring the patron saint of music by making music that speaks the “unspeakable name” of God) seem a bit cloying. There’s literally a moment mid-song where she sings, with the full gusto of the choir backing her, “To bring beauty to our DISSONANCE!”, and of course they land on this huge, dissonant note, and I just sort of have to laugh because it’s so egregiously goofy and obviously not intended to be. I honestly don’t know if vocal music in the classical era was this heavy-handed with its lyrics, or if “show, don’t tell” was always a rule among the better composers, so I’m just not even in the right headspace to properly evaluate this song. What I honestly feel about it is that its intentions are good but it goes on for a bit too long and lays on the drama a bit thicker than I would have liked, but I really have no grounds to say how she should have approached it, because I’m way out of my depth on this one.
14. As the Night
Classical music aficionados, if I haven’t already lost you by this point, I’m probably going to lose you by admitting that my ears still can’t differentiate between an oboe and an English horn. I think I’m hearing the latter here, but who knows, it may be something else entirely. It pairs beautifully with the harp in this eight-minute piece that sounds noticeably more exotic than the other instrumental bits on the album – perhaps it’s just the unusual melody of it, but I feel like I’m hearing tinges of Middle Eastern influence on this one. So as I listen to it, my mind is taken over by images of sheiks and sultans and those curvy spires and domes on the tops of mosques, and… yeah, I have an overactive imagination. And maybe none of that was intended by the composer, for all I know, but it’s a breathtaking piece no matter what unusual images it might conjure up in the listener’s head, and I don’t mind it taking a full eight minutes to explore its landscape.
The choir is back again, for another song of praise in Latin that makes me think “Gregorian chant” (except there are both men and women singing, and some choir nerd will probably point out to me that “Gregorian” is the wrong era, and that’s probably as grating to them as it is to me when the Grammys consider Coldplay “alternative rock”, so let’s just move on, shall we?) I like the inherent modesty that initially masks the complexity of this piece. It’s not trying to be anything epic in scope like its sister song that opened the disc; it’s largely just simple repetition of the words “Sanctus” and “Hosanna”, stretched to different lengths at different speeds by the various sections of the choir, which interlock with each other in satisfying ways. Hey, I’ll take it over the bland “four chords of pop and the truth” approach taken by a lot of contemporary worship music. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the truth. Just show it the respect it deserves by making more creative music about it, ‘K?)
16. Day Boy: Photogen Sees the Moon
Trying to describe the 16-minute orchestral track that closes the album to you is a daunting task, to say the least. There’s so much going on here that fully dissecting it would probably take as much time as the entire rest of the album review. So I’ll focus instead on the aspects of it that surprised me the most. First, there’s the way it quietly opens with piano – an instrument I don’t recall being prominently featured on the album. While there are many movements to the song, I think one of the most exciting moments is when that first movement comes to its proud conclusion and then the harp is ushered in, absent up until that point but suddenly taking center stage. Timbre clearly intended this piece to be her magnum opus, and put a lot of thought into weaving together little cadences and bits of melody from tracks spanning the album (most notably the refrain of “I Am in the Garden” and the climax I enjoyed so very much from “Nycteris Sees the Sun”). While a part of me would have liked to hear a lyrical story describing Photogen’s point of view in a manner similar to Nycteris’s at the end of the first disc, I’m sure that much like “Peter and the Wolf” and other classical pieces I had to learn about back in grade school, there’s a story being told through the instruments here that is implied by so many of these cues being reused from earlier in the album – different motifs representing different places or characters, perhaps. It’s a fascinating piece that I’ll never fully understand, and while not all sixteen minutes of it keep me fully engaged, it comes to a very fitting and satisfying end, only then revealing the final surprise that this entire disc was being recorded in front of a live audience, who cheer heartily to close out the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Song of the Sun $2
Your Hands Hold Home $1.75
The Persistence of First Love $1.25
Singing and Singing $.75
Of Waving Woods and Waters Wild $1.50
I Am in the Garden $1
Chicago Pier $1.25
Morning Birds $.50
Night Girl: Nycteris Sees the Sun $1.75
Sunset (O Lux Beata Trinitas) $.75
Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies $1
St. Cecelia: An Ode to Music $.50
As the Night $1.25
Day Boy: Photogen Sees the Moon $2.50 (that’s $1.25 x 2 – there’s at least two “normal” songs’ worth of material here)
Timbre Cierpke: Lead vocals, harp
Patrick Rush: Cello
Mason Self: Drums, glock, toy piano
The Trevecca Madrigalian Choir: Vocals (obviously)
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