The four works appearing on the Departure Duo’s album Immensity Of represent a sampling of the repertoire the two—soprano Nina Guo and double bassist Edward Kass—have been assembling for double bass and soprano. What they hope to show is that this pairing, though unusual, is also unusually musical. This sparse yet exquisitely beautiful recording proves them right.
Guo and Kass’ focus is on contemporary work, much of it which they’ve commissioned. Hence three of the four compositions on the album, spanning 2017-2019, were written for the two. The fourth, by Hungarian composer György Kurtág, is from 1999. The Kurtág piece consists of short, outburst-like settings of twenty-two witty, aphoristic selections from 18th physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s scrapbooks (or “book of scribblings”). In keeping with some of Lichtenberg’s observations, Kurtág’s writing is often astringent, featuring leaping, expressionistic vocal lines underpinned by basslines that emphasize the opposition between the ranges and timbres of soprano voice and low strings. Katherine Balch’s Phrases, which sets fragments from Rimbaud’s poem Illuminations, closes the gap between double bass and soprano through generous use of extended technique for double bass, which pulls it up into an approximation of the soprano’s register. John Aylward’s three-movement Tiergarten (“zoo”) undergirds Guo’s delivery of Rilke’s poems about swan, panther, and unicorn with arpeggiated harmonics, thickly bowed chords, and staccato bowed and pizzicato lines, respectively. Immensity Of by Emily Praetorius is a quiet, slowly moving microtonal piece that sets Guo’s wordless voice against Kass’ bass as each produces long notes gliding downward and upward, away from and toward each other.