Molly Herron’s “Through Lines” inspects the viol with a contemporary eye

Composer Molly Herron explores a vast landscape of musical and temporal intersections in Through the lines, his last album released on August 27, 2021 on New Amsterdam Records. Using the historic viola da gamba (or viola) instrument as a vehicle to connect the past to the present, Herron composed the seven pieces and four interludes in collaboration with the viola ensemble Science Ficta, which expertly performs the album.

Herron reinvents the traditional musical form of the canon by Cannon n ° 3 and Cannon n ° 2. Cannon n ° 3 immediately establishes a dominant-tonic relationship, echoing Baroque compositional choices, but opens with a passage that evokes the indeterminacy of wind chimes: tonal connected, but unpredictable. Herron also plays with articulation and timbre, which familiarizes the listener with the wide range of expression on the viol. The result is a piece that is both anchored and fluid. As if to go up the first track, Cannon n ° 2 begins with a more familiar reference to a conventional gun. A theme is passed between each of the instruments, but Herron also divides the thematic material between them, as if the viols end the melodic phrases of the other. Later in the piece, Herron brings together baroque composition techniques and minimalism.

Molly Herron – Photo by Catalina Kulczar

Interludes 1, 2, 3, and 4 are sprinkled throughout the album and each one focuses on the expressive abilities of the viol within the harmonic series, evoking a modern spectral aesthetic. The first of the interludes gently introduces the timbral width of the instrument. Interlude 2 highlights the tight blend and technical expertise of Science Ficta as it explores the pressure and articulation of the bow. In Interlude 3, Herron shows the dissonant parts of the harmonic series by obscuring the dominant fundamental of the piece with discordant harmonies. Interlude 4 provides a slight break in an intense part of the album with soothing consonant chords that emphasize the melodic material.

In Trill and To roll, Herron pushes the concepts of baroque ornamental technique out of their historical contexts to become the hyperfocus of each piece. In Trill, Herron highlights the immense importance of musical ornament by composing an almost uninterrupted series of trills. Sometimes she aligns the trill with the melody, while at other times each of the violas da gamba seems to trill in such close relationships that they form a sort of group of pitches from the Venn diagram not very common to the baroque harmony. In the same way, To roll highlights the technique of pacing a chord on all the strings of the viol. Herron shows the dramatic intensity and volume of the viola da gamba through consecutive stacked rolled chords in relative harmonic stasis. The casual listener can be pleasantly lost in the sounds of these pieces, while deep listening reveals cleverly designed layers of historical and contemporary ideas.

After Picforth emphasizes the caramelized richness of the viola. Herron was inspired by 16th and 17th century British composer Picforth – only one of his manuscripts, Nominee, remains while the others have been lost to history. Picforth assigned a rhythmic value to the five voices in his piece, and each voice gets a unique rhythm. As if to pay homage to In Nominated, Herron begins his piece with a slow minor chorale before each viol interposes subtle and rapid interruptions, almost as if the instruments are chatting among themselves. Soon the chatter becomes more pronounced as the solemn chorale fades away. As quickly as the play climaxes, it ends and leaves the listener wondering what couldn’t wait to be said.

In these and the other tracks on Through the lines, Molly Herron judiciously establishes a link between a historical instrument and contemporary composition techniques which are links in a chain through time. In an almost grisey-esque fashion, Herron holds the sound of the viol under a microscope, expanding its sound and meaning. By negotiating the space between the conventional and the unconventional, she also creates a bond between composers of the past and herself, a thoughtful and talented 21st century composer.

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