• Martin Achrainer, Maki Namekawa: “Philip Glass: Songs” (Orange Mountain Music)
  • Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini: “Daylight: Stories of Songs, Dances and Loves” (Naïve)
  • Roderick Williams, Roger Vignoles: “Mirages: The Art of French Song” (Champs Hill Records) 

There comes a point when, driving down a long stretch of highway, you get hit with a disorienting feeling of staticness. Your car isn’t moving; it’s the road beneath you that is. Maybe your gaze starts to soften. Maybe the sun has begun to set, making it all the more difficult to distinguish the sky from the ground. Maybe you should change lanes before you run into a guardrail. 

It’s a feeling that Galileo would have described as relative motion: When traveling at a consistent speed, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between moving on a static earth, or being static with the earth moving beneath you. The two are one and the same. It’s a feeling that the Buddhists would describe as emptiness: When we let go of all fixed ideas of who we are and why, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between our experience and the world around us. The two are one and the same. 

Philip Glass, himself a practicing Buddhist, has spoken in similar terms of composing and performing: “Listening properly or performing becomes a kind of harmonizing of parts of our being—our intellectual center, our emotional center, and our moving center. So when you’re performing, in the best sense you harmonize those three centers in this way,” he wrote for Tricycle Magazine in 1999. “It’s the activity of listening that activates these three areas, and it’s in the way they work together that the performance takes place.” 

Intellect, emotion, and movement combine in “Songs of Milarepa,” Glass’s 1997 setting of three spiritual poems by medieval Tibetan Buddhist monk Jetsun Milarepa. The texts move with the methodical mundanity familiar in Buddhist chants. Recited in a monotone and often invoking lineages of leaders and protectors, they can often sound like spiritual listicles. (Take, for instance, the “Song of the White Staff,” which Glass turns into a nine-minute description of Milarepa’s sole possession, his cane, and all of the significance imbued therein.) The words are effectively empty; their circling creates a space for you to locate yourself within the emptiness. The closing “Song of the Five Sisters” is, of these three texts, Milarepa at his most existential: ”To suit the minds of men, the Buddha said, ‘All things are existent.’ But in the realms of Absolute Truth, Buddha himself does not exist.…Matter and beings from the start are nonexistent. They have never come to be.”  

A quarter of a century after “Songs of Milarepa” premiered, the work has come full circle with its first-ever recording, featuring baritone Martin Achrainer and pianist Maki Namekawa. Like a late night on a long stretch of highway where it’s difficult to distinguish the road from the sky, it’s hard at times to separate one musician from the other. Gently oscillating piano rhythms seem to overtake the vocal lines as Achrainer plumbs the realms of Absolute Truth. Likewise, the shadows of Achrainer’s overtones take the wheel in several of Namekawa’s piano solos. Her lines act as tools for divination.

Here is where Galileo and the Buddha run at the same unlikely speed: The former came out of an era in which divination was the order of all aspects of civil life, including art. The divine lurked behind every surface. While Galileo’s theory that the earth revolved around the sun got him in trouble with the Catholic church, his theory of physical relativity was, in its own way, emblematic of the ecclesiastical dictum “as above, so below.” 

Was it any wonder that Galileo was the son of a composer central to the birth of Italian opera—an art form based in Greek tragedies, works in which the worlds of mortals and gods dissolved into one another? 

With this in mind (along with the fact that Glass himself wrote an opera based on the life of Galileo), “Songs of Milarepa” left me craving a chaser of Monteverdi. Listening to Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini’s latest recording of the composer alongside Achrainer and Namekawa’s Glass highlighted the throughline between the two composers. Hierarchies between voices and instrumental accompaniment are often dissolved. Steadier rhythmic basslines are the ground for vocal lines to wander before coming back to themselves. At certain points, such as “Io mi son giovinetta” from the Fourth Book of Madrigals, it all blends into the same landscape. 

Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano also break down the limitations of Monteverdi’s works for “Daylight,” which was conceived as a follow-up to 2017’s Monteverdi-hued “Night.” A story of lovers waking up to one another and “a thousand unpaid desires” (desire: the surefire path to suffering in Buddhism) is collaged together from excerpts of the composer’s madrigals, operas, and multi-volume “Scherzi Musicali.” The effect is hypnotically intimate, particularly in the five-part madrigals. Moments of tender vocal lines circle one another while imbuing each measure with a sense of wide-eyed nowness. The momentum of Monteverdi’s musical lines makes it hard to get caught up in any one moment for too long. 

In this context, Romantic art song—steeped in poetic narrative with images you can’t help but cleave to—seems to be the odd man out. And yet, there’s something about cushioning British baritone Roderick Williams singing Fauré’s “Mirages” in the packing materials of madrigals and minimalism. Listen to “Cygne sur l’eau” when you still have the whiff of Monteverdi’s interlocking harmonic descents that resolve into ether in your head. It’s like plunging into an ice bath, and one that makes Williams’s subtle, expressive nuance and velvety vocal textures come into clearer focus. This isn’t a thousand unfulfilled desires, but a single, sustained desire stretching back to a time before desire existed.

Together with pianist Roger Vignoles, Williams explores the breadth of French song, at times becoming more acerbic, as in Arthur Honegger’s Brechtian “​​Petit cours de morale” or Poulenc’s ribald setting of “Deux poèmes d’Apollinaire.” This collapses into rancorous heartbreak with Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée,” with the veneer of Williams’s Knight of La Mancha rubbing off in the final drinking song, revealing him to be a man lost to his illusions. It’s the sort of behavior Milarepa would admonish: “It is far better to have no affectionate companions,” the Buddhist master cautions in the first of Glass’s settings. But Williams’s recital makes the case for approaching this warning with some skepticism: Where would the fun be in that? ¶

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