By Björk Óskarsdóttir
Ulises Conti is an Argentinian composer and sound artist. He has a track record of much interdisciplinary work and musically does not stay within one genre. He has produced music in the style of IDM, ambient and field recordings as well as solo piano pieces –not to mention his soundwalks and concerts for an audience of one. Los efímeros, or The Ephemeral Ones is a classical, tonal style composition for a chamber group of 15 musicians; violin, viola, cello, contrabass, French horn, trombone, trumpet, bassoon, harp and timpani. It consists of 10 small movements, recorded in the auditorium of the Usina del Arte in Buenos Aires. The work was composed on the occasion of actress/director Mariana Obersztern’s theatrical work Oberek.
Oberek is a piece for a piano, woman, audience and orchestra. It revolves around a woman lost in time wanting to find herself. She interrogates herself about her past and future – in short the work is about her introspection and reflections on the “circularity of time and creation.”
The album’s ten movements bear names in the style of classical music; starting with an overture and finishing with an elegy. The word “ephemeral” seems like an oxymoron to the topic of “classical”, but that might be a mere coincidence. Another interesting angle on the album concept is the cover, a page of sheet music titled Los Efímeros by Ulisses Conti but the music written on it is not the one on the album.
Obertura is a pensive, 3 minute introduction to the piece; it’s eerie and has an ongoing theme of a major 2nd, shifting between the strings and being expanded to the rest of the group. This is an intriguing and, well, a non-beautiful movement that makes very subtle changes of the colour of the sound. Preludio sounds born out of the same soundscape of the previous movement and then ascends in volume and intensity towards its end.
After the first two movements, Virelay wraps you into a warm blanket. The title origins from a French verse form, and here we have long phrases that vary between icy, harmonic violin strokes and a “reply” with a more romantic, warm sound to it, all answered to by the winds and accompanied in a minimal way by the harp, which frames it all in. This is one of the best album tracks and could easily touch many listeners with its breath-like phrasing.
Next we have Lied (a German form of song), performed beautifully by a solo French horn. It really is written and performed like a song for voice, it is just very pleasant in all terms. Interludio, string pizzicato accompanies winds. There are bouncy syncopations, a low profile but dramatic. This has most likely been a great fit for the theatrical work.
Divertimento by definition is originally meant to be “for amusement” as it was played at social occasions but there is nothing funny about this one. It covers a little more than a minute and a half, a “spooky carousel”-waltz with an anxious atmosphere, accompanied by some human whispering on playback. Soloists take turns carrying the main motif between them until it withers into the air.
Fantasía is the high dramatic piece here. Perhaps it fitted well to Oberek, but as a stand-alone piece this is not the album’s best. It lasts long, with the tension and volume staying quite similar apart from the very end, same is to say about the slow vibrato of the strings. It would have been intriguing to see what would have become of this one with a more nuanced and less pressured sound. The harmony and melody as written are naturally dramatic, so the challenge here would have been to make said nuances out of it. But, perhaps, that was the statement.
Promenade is a perfect follow up, minimalistic horn solo, introspective and beautifully played. A stunning melody – to call it Promenade might hint at the composer’s known Walk and Listen tours or “soundwalks”, where a group of participants go on a silent walk through a city, focusing only on the surrounding sounds.
Impromptu is a very interesting movement, with an angelic soundscape of the harp and the strings that switch between harmonics and subtle, welcoming tones and some extra hissing sounds which then accompany a wind’s melody that might have come straight out of an 18th century Italian opera. This is just brilliant.
Elegía is moody and beautifully performed by the lower strings in particular, the balanced sound between the players and the composition itself are absolutely rich with colours. As the title suggests, this is a sorrowful piece. The beginning carries a feel even of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht or Shostakovich’s 9th string quartet (II. mvt) but the phrases are swelled out, extended, pulled apart, the agony buried in the ground. It intensifies towards the end and finishes off with a bang.
In some cases, artists who do what Conti does, i.e. change styles between albums, seem to do so in order to make some kind of a self-approving statement; to be unpredictable. In other words, it is often an effort of mere gymnastics to keep the audience curious. In Conti’s case it seems more likely that he just genuinely wanted to compose a classical-styled piece and so he did. The compositions and personal projects speak volumes, there is no space left for a made-up artist/brand identity. There is skill and there is experience, there is a fresh, artistically thinking mind and this is obvious.
Los Efímeros is a study on musical depth, where Conti explores with great appetite the different dimensions of the chamber orchestra form. The composition flows nicely between movements. One of the best releases of 2018.