WomenArts Quarterly Journal (USA), Thomas Erdmann, contributing editor
Vol.3 Issue 1. Winter 2013

… Leach’s newest CD-released compositional project, Songs from the Edge (April 2012, JazzHausMusik), is a song cycle influenced by a series of conversations she had regarding the topic of psychosis. In the liner notes, Leach points out that most of the available information about the nature of this illness comes from medical professionals who are on the outside, looking in. As a result of her investigation into this illness, Leach sought to express through music what it’s like to be on the inside of the diagnosis, looking out.

To bring her vision to light, Leach wrote a work to be performed by PLoTS, a Dutch/German improvisational quartet. With Simin Tander singing Leach’s lyrics, Tessa Zoutendijk on violin, Esmee Olthuis on soprano and alto saxophones, and Laia Genc on piano, the ensemble most closely approximates some of the less extreme free-jazz work saxophonist Evan Parker has done with pianist Paul Bley.

Leach’s music is both and neither jazz, both and neither classical; instead, it is characterized by a sense of exploration and discovery that is open to a variety of influences from a wide range of musical genres. It’s not that the music takes turns in different musical worlds; it delves into different genres, using only their most important elements to express the concept of the moment in the best atmosphere possible. From straight musical interpretations of Leach’s written music, to abstract musical expressions best conveyed through wordless vocals, extended twentieth-century violin and saxophone performance techniques, coupled with improvisational sections, Leach has fashioned a world both disturbing and fresh.

What is most fascinating about the song cycle is how Leach has embedded the lyrics within the musical firmament. On “Voices”, for instance, the extended out-of-time sliding portamento violin phrases are placed against a cacophony of overlaid extreme vocal non-word syllables that, with the help of ostinato-ish low register piano chords, build in both dynamic intensity and hurried frenzy to a spectacular silence. Whether the voices are trying to get out or if they are all different abstractions of the same moment being expressed simultaneously is almost unimportant; the sense of utter helplessness at not being able to control all that is going on is what the listener is stunningly left with.

More traditionally-orientated is “Mirror”. This composition, built mostly on a solid mid-tempo, pianistically-driven rhythm, provides ample room for Olthuis’s improvised alto saxophone lines. Taking a small motive and developing it, almost through retrograde gestures resulting in the deconstructing of an opening set of motives, she creates music that is not just great improvisation but, more importantly, passionatley rooted to the lyric’s questioning of how bits and pieves of the individual are seen and unseen in different kinds of reflections.

As a vocalist, Tander sings lovingly and, at times, traditionally, as on “Mask”. She occasionally channels Tori Amos’s more breathy moments, as on “The Watcher”. And on “Little Lives”, she demonstrates a yearning vocal intensity that demands attention, similar to Linda Ronstadt’s work on Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days. In addition, she can quiver her voice in a most disturbing fashion as on “Don’t Look Down”.

While it would be easy to focus the bulk of this review on how expertly Tander handles her responsibilities, her singing would not have the disquieting impact it does were it not for the way Leach composes all of the accompanying instrumental voices in support of Tander’s vocalizations. Even when the ensemble is improvising, they are still melded to Leach’s inflamed poetry. It’s obvious the ensemble showed up in the studio having extensively rehearsed and personally reflected on each tune’s conceptual framework. No ensemble can be this much in-sync with every nuance of every gesture they perform without close work and communication.

In sum, PLoTS has created some of the most thrilling and simultaneously disturbing music one will ever encounter. While this music is not for those looking for a summer convertible top-down driving excursion, this disc offers a goldmine for those who approach this music based on its own initiatives and rules.

With this song cycle, Leach, in the same manner as Joan Tower, has found a contemporary compositional voice that needs to be honored and broadened to reach a wider audience. She is not just a great music composer; she has separated herself from the throng by lending a voice to those who struggle with psychosis. An undeniably disturbing portrait, Songs from the Edge calls upon those of us who do not suffer from this illness to be thankful for being spared and find new sympathy for those who weren’t.

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Hazel Leach
Hazel Leach - Credits