Fifteen or so years ago the my then-group was on a bill with an improvising duo consisting of double bass and harp. An unusual combination at first sight, but as their set showed, it made for a fascinating blend of contrasts and consonances of timbre and compass. That unique and uniquely right conjunction of instruments is put forward and elaborated upon in For Claire and Philip, the debut recording of the River Town Duo.
The Claire and Philip of the album’s title are the River Town Duo: harpist Claire Happel Ashe and double bassist Philip Alejo. The title track, a composition by Caroline Shaw, alludes not only to its having been commissioned by the duo, but more expansively to the fact that the recording’s six works, composed over the past six years by six contemporary composers, were all commissions from Ashe and Alejo.
On the evidence of For Claire and Philip, Ashe and Alejo have tastes that embrace a broad range of new music. The album is well-balanced between conventionally-framed, lyrical pieces and works informed by the contemporary common practice of seamlessly integrating extended and ordinary techniques. For Claire and Philip (2014) is an example of the former type of work, with Alejo’s slowly bowed melody floating over a rhythmic, piano-like accompaniment on the harp. The Circuitous Six (2016) by pianist/composer Whitney Ashe (and husband of Claire) is an introspective work featuring an abstract impressionist harp line over a restrained bass divided between arco and pizzicato. The composer of On Lotusland (2015), Derick Evans, is predominantly a pop songwriter, but his suspenseful, episodic contribution is conversant with contemporary performance techniques—aggressive percussive effects, harmonic glissandi, microtones and more—as it moves through shifting time signatures and in and out of brief forays into lyricism. Hannah Lash’s aptly titled Leaves, Space (2015) is an undulating, uncluttered two-movement composition ornamented with broad trills and bowed chords from the bass. Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver (2017) by Evan Premo, another two-movement work, evokes early morning New Hampshire with Ashe mimicking finger-picked guitar and Alejo playing a rich, clear upper register arco line. The final piece on the album, the vigorous, five-movement Oxygen (2017) by Stephen Andrew Taylor, draws most consistently on extended techniques for both instruments.
What binds these diversely styled compositions together is the beautiful performance by Ashe and Alejo. Their collective sound is luxuriant and vivid, their individual sounds finely etched. Ashe’s playing is sensitive but sharply focused; Alejo’s signature is a smooth arco that’s forcefully robust in the lower register and highly refined in the upper register. A delightful album.