Echoes of a Lost Civilization, and Kazoos

Brett CarsonMysterious Descent (self-released, 2017)

carson-descentMysterious Descent does indeed feel like a descent, as it starts in a dream space, slowly drawing you in to its disorienting flow. The first scene has the four musicians acting a scripted dialogue that slowly unravels out of normal conversation and into trancelike dialogue, and out of English into a language imagined by composer Brett Carson.

So begins a song cycle drawn from the only surviving texts of the lost (fictitious) Koktimô civilization. With piano, violin, and percussion, Carson mixes modern classical music, traditional song form, and old-timey melodrama. It’s all presented with a sense of high drama but there are also touches of silliness and absurdity, such as a final processional of kazoos, or repeated mentions of elephants. (Carson has a previous project called Quattuor Elephantis — you can sense a theme here.)

Over the course of the album, small shimmers of a plotline emerge like an anthropological puzzle, guided by long stretches of English lyrics suggesting ancient mysticism and lost sciences. “Song of Anori” presents elements of courtly ritual in formalized, theatrical form. “Song of Vurvmôprinka” starts with long, twining lines of melody before shifting into surreal lyrics.

 
The tale of “The Fisherman” seems to be a dramatic turning point. Less obscure than the other tracks, it’s a spoken fable about a proud fisherman who goes to woo the queen of the lake. The song cycle hits a dramatic high point with the grand, sweeping piano chords of “Song of Dzochanibralk.”

 
Below is the performance of Mysterious Descent at last year’s Outsound Music Festival, with the same ensemble as on the album: Carson on piano, Nava Dunkelman on percussion, and Mia Bella D’Augelli on violin, with David Katz doing the narration and singing. I’m especially fond of this key passage from “The Fisherman.” You can also view a November performance at the Center for New Music.

 
You can hear the studio version of Mysterious Descent on Bandcamp. Among Carson’s next project is an opera scheduled to premiere in Oakland in August.

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