Rebekah Driscoll: From Liberty and Fragrant Harbors
Rebekah Driscoll

From Liberty and Fragrant Harbors is a powerful collection of vocal ensemble music by Rebekah Driscoll (b. 1980). Originally from New Hampshire, the composer wrote the material partially in New York, her adopted home since seventeen, as well as during a fifteen-month stay in Hong Kong. Laid down at various NY locales, Brooklyn and Yonkers among them, the recording features soprano Mary Hubbell, violist Erin Wight, and the GHOSTLIGHT Chorus performing eight Driscoll settings; not only are the pieces distinguished on compositional and performance grounds, they're also marked by the socially conscious mindset Driscoll brings to her texts, with issues such as climate change, inequality, and criminal justice referenced alongside personal ones such as homesickness and gratitude. It's telling that coinciding with the album's release is the premiere of Apart/ment, a song cycle for vocalists and instrumentalists whose theme centers on homelessness (in fact the “Prologue” from Apart/ment is included as a bonus track on From Liberty and Fragrant Harbors).

The words in “To Speak Anymore” describe the temporary state of disorientation Driscoll experienced when she awoke on a stormy morning in Hong Kong. Here and elsewhere, she matches the musical material to the textual, with in this case eight female voices gently rising, at moments tentative and uncertain in their movements, and growing more robust as the piece advances. Elsewhere, the interactions between female solo and group singers during “Arrived in Mind on Winter's Walk” calls to mind the singing of the well-known Bulgarian folk choir “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares,” even if the sonorities between the two groups are obviously different.

Driscoll's socially conscious side comes to the fore during “When I Learned of Kalief Browder,” a vocal piece written to protest the treatment of Browder who, sixteen at the time of his arrest for robbery in 2010, spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial before his case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Rather than the story ending happily, however, Browder took his life in 2015 after suffering depression and anxiety brought on by the treatment to which he was subjected. “When I Learned of Kalief Browder” and “Climate Honesty” aren't subtle on messages grounds, Driscoll presumably of the opinion that the time for mincing words is over. Musically, however, the tone of the latter isn't strident but instead pleading, the composer suggesting perhaps that change might be better accomplished by appealing to reason.

On “For Lantau,” Driscoll pays tribute to the island, a beautiful and verdant Hong Kong locale that's also vulnerable to the kinds of irrevocable transformations introduced by tourism and transportation developments. At eleven minutes, it's the album's longest setting as well as arguably its most powerful one, especially when the interactions between GHOSTLIGHT's male and female vocalists and Wight's viola amplify the material's plaintive tone; marked by the vocalists' interlaced expressions of regret and memory, “For Lantau” begins to take on the character of a requiem, and on the related “Lantau Variations,” the album's sole instrumental, Driscoll enhances Wight's stirring viola playing by using audio editing software to build upon the original recorded material. Throughout this fine collection, the impact of Driscoll's musical writing is bolstered dramatically by provocative textual content, and consequently From Liberty and Fragrant Harbors registers as a recording where what's said signifies as strongly as what sounds.

May 2016