Jayne Amara Ross, Frédéric D. Oberland & Gaspar Claus: The Freemartin Calf
Gizeh Records

In some ways, The Freemartin Calf can be seen as a companion work to Farewell Poetry's 2011 release Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite, given the involvement of two of the group's founding members, French composer Frederic D. Oberland and Franco-Australian poet-filmmaker Jayne Amara Ross, in both projects (while he's not a formal Farewell Poetry member, cellist Gaspar Claus guested on Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite). If anything, the new release alters the balance between sound and visuals that was tipped in the former's favour on the earlier recording, such that an equal amount of attention is now given on The Freemartin Calf to both soundtrack and film components. In its presented form, the project includes both a limited edition LP and DVD, and is supplemented by the original script of the film plus a bonus MP3 download of a forty-one-minute live performance featuring violinist Christelle Lassort recorded in April 2011 at Saint Mérry Church in Paris.

Formally speaking, The Freemartin Calf couples Ross's poetry and Super 8 film content with music by Oberland and contributions from Claus. In terms of narrative content, the film, designed as a thematic comment on the creative process, presents a day in the life of a girl and her mother as they contend with the pressures society places upon them to conform to certain roles. Stylistically, the black-and-white film harks back to the silent days of cinema and invites comparison to the work of figures such as F.W. Murnau and Guy Maddin, among others.

Broached on purely sonic terms, the thirty-eight-minute soundtrack retains a cohesive narrative structure, in large part due to the connecting thread of Ross's narration. In the absence of the film, her softly spoken words enable the listener to piece together the story and fill in whatever gaps arise during the purely musical passages; that the soundtrack is intended to be experienced cinematically—even in the absence of visuals—is intimated by the title of the closing piece “The End / Credits.” Ross, Oberland, and Claus also prevent the material from growing overly ponderous by interspersing the narrated pieces with some purely instrumental settings.

Field recordings of merciless winter winds create an unsettling mood at the outset of “The Crossing I, Winter Stone & Mortar,” an effect reinforced by Ross's dramatic murmur. The mood brightens in the subsequent “The Bed-Crows / Girasol” when music box-styled keyboard patterns suggest a child's bedroom, even if Ross's poetic narration and the brooding atmospheres sculpted by Oberland, Claus, and sound designer Maxime Champesme ensure that darkness and disturbance are never too far away. The recording is arguably at its most harrowing during the penultimate setting “The Sacrifice,” where Claus's frenzied attack meets Oberland's equally nightmarish scene-painting head on.

The recording hugely benefits from Claus's multi-layered cello, whose mournful cry and arpeggios are used to graceful effect on “The Crossing II, Gutter-Plunder,” “On the Edge of the Great Precipice,” and “The End / Credits.” Moments of beauty are many, a typical example being the stirring closer where Claus's playing is complemented by the graceful lilt of Oberland's piano and Ross's entrancing voice. Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay to the project's principals is to state that The Freemartin Calf succeeds splendidly in both presentation formats, as an arresting film narrative and as a provocative stand-alone soundtrack.

August-September 2013