Poppy Ackroyd: Feathers
Feathers follows fast on the heels of the DVD release Escapement Visualized, Poppy Ackroyd's audio-visual collaboration with Lumen (itself an update of her 2012 debut album Escapement). The Brighton-based composer and multi-instrumentalist hasn't radically altered her sound on the new collection, but that's hardly cause for complaint given the fulsome rewards it offers. The title wasn't arbitrarily chosen, by the way: while its selection was inspired by the Emily Dickinson line “Hope is the thing with feathers,” the title also refers to the feather quill in the mechanisms of some of the keyboard instruments Ackroyd plays on the recording, as well as to the theme of flight.
Once again the listener is treated to a collection of intricately woven and atmospheric settings Ackroyd created using piano, violin, and field recordings (chiming wall clocks, traffic noise, and beach sounds), though this time around she's bolstered her soundworld with the harmonium, clavichord, harpsichord, and spinet, and augmented her own violin playing with cello by Su-a Lee. Ackroyd's Blüthner grand piano is central to the album's eight pieces, with the composer once again supplementing the instrument's conventional sound with percussive effects generated by prepared piano. The recording process received a major boost when she was allowed to conduct recording sessions at the Russell/Mirrey Collection of keyboard instruments in Edinburgh and explore the sound potential of fifty keyboard instruments from the 16th to the 19th centuries. She brushed and plucked their strings, tapped and stroked their frames and soundboards, and added to the recordings she made of these sounds pedal noise and the sound of the harpsichord's shutters opening and closing.
There's a life-affirming quality to Ackroyd's music that comes through in its rhythmic flair and sonic sparkle. That emerges right away in the opening piece, “Strata” where the bright timbres of the piano and the staccato click of the percussive patterns merge with the warmth of the string textures. And even in those cases where a melancholy mood might pertain, the material is elevated by the inherent buoyancy of the rhythmic design. The aforementioned wall clocks figure into the arrangement of “Timeless,” naturally enough, but they're not used merely for show: Ackroyd skillfully weaves their metronomic patterns into the piece's rhythmic lilt, which itself serves as a springboard for stately piano patterns and luscious violin and cello textures. Though “Taskin” catches one's ears instantly for the crystalline tinkle of the harpsichord, the song's percussive treatments and compositional style make it blend in with the recording's other pieces.
It's the beautiful title track, however, that's this recording's tour de force. Opening with delicate sprinklings of piano, the music gains incrementally in force as Ackroyd builds layers of strings and piano into a swirling, tumultuous mass. And while one never gets the impression that she's interested in grandstanding, any question regarding her prowess as a pianist is unequivocally laid to rest by the performance. At forty-one minutes, Feathers might be modest in length, but it's hardly modest in scope when Ackroyd's arrangements teem with so much detail and stimulate the ear with their range of sounds.