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Elliott Sharp: Port Bou

Mark Sullivan By

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Composer/multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp chose a dramatic subject for Port Bou: the last minutes in the life of philosopher Walter Benjamin at Port-Bou (a town in Catalonia, Spain) as he was fleeing Nazi-occupied France. This is a man preparing to commit suicide, so the music is appropriately intense. I'm reminded of Laurie Anderson's performance piece about Difficult Music. Some will find this music hard to listen to, not because of the noisy avant-garde content (there's only a little), but due to the dark mood, and the frequently dissonant sound.

Vocalist bass/baritone Nicholas Isherwood gives Benjamin voice, in a bravura performance that requires him to sing complex, chromatic lines against accompaniment that is more about setting the mood than actively supporting the vocal part. The piece is described as an opera (and given the size of the performing forces, it would be a chamber opera): perhaps it could just as accurately be called a melodrama, since the vocal part tends more towards recitative than aria. The libretto is a stream of consciousness monologue, words intended to convey Benjamin's inner state more than to tell a story.

Pianist Jenny Lin and accordionist William Schimmel take the traditional accompanying role usually filled by an orchestra, or a smaller group of strings, winds and brass in a chamber work like this. The accordion proves to be an exceptionally flexible partner in this role, capable of playing sustained string parts or solo wind lines. Sharp contributes electroacoustic atmospheres on bass clarinet, trombone, cello, guitar, percussion, viola and electronics—about as "multi-instrumentalist" as it gets, including just about all of the possible instrumental groups.

Isherwood does the heavy lifting, but he's not signing nonstop—there are sections that are primarily instrumental. "Port Bou Overture" follows the traditional pattern, a completely instrumental composition setting the scene and introducing the main thematic elements. "Sh" and "Ajsa" are instrumental interludes with just a bit of vocalizing (no words). For all of the vocal fireworks, the final piece "Translation" concludes with soft instrument sounds: being fading into nothingness.

Track Listing: Port Bou Overture; A Room; Sh; Words; Ajsa; Creation; Reproduction; Translation.

Personnel: Nicholas Isherwood: bass/baritone; Jenny Lin: piano; William Schimmel: accordion; Elliott Sharp: bass clarinet, trombone, viola, cello, guitar, percussion, electronics.

Title: Port Bou | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Infrequent Seams

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