REVIEWS of Sarah Peebles' music < back to Amber CD main review page || next review >

Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 7, 1997

Sarah Peebles, with Takahashi Harada, Kazue Mizushima, K� Ishikawa, Hiromi Yoshida and Ikuo Kakehashi. Innova Recordings, St. Paul, MN, U.S.A., 1996.

Reviewed by Patrick Lambelet, 2879 23rd St., San Francisco, CA, 94110, U.S.A.

This remarkable work demands to be heard with one's senses and mind wide open; it would be a great loss to miss the subtleties of these engaging compositions by Canadian composer Sarah Peebles. Collaborating with several Japanese composers and musicians, Peebles draws from a broad scope of Japanese music—including ancient court music (gagaku), Buddhist and Shinto ceremonial music and contemporary electronic composition—and infuses it with her own Western musical background, creating a work that is multilayered and challenging.

The pieces incorporate themes of nature and of the cycles of change, relying for their richness on the improvisational interplay of the musicians. The sound sources used range from traditional Japanese instruments to MIDI keyboards, digital sampling and toy instruments. At the core of the nine tracks on Suspended in Amber is a deep stillness, a fluid line holding the pieces together even as their sonic intensity and dissonance threaten to overpower the listener. This is not "new age" or "ambient" music - it is, in fact, quite jarring at times - but it nevertheless evokes a sense of something eternal beneath cacophonous change.

Peebles creates an ethereal, mystical atmosphere, evoking a world of drifting images. She derives inspiration in part from Japanese folk themes (the track "Blue Moon Spirit" is titled after a which two blue "moons" represent the spirits of a woman and her lover) and from the sounds of her own North American environment ("the ocean," she writes about the track "Tomo� (revolving life)," "finds its parallel here in the Great Lakes [of North America]. Impermanence, infinity, the intangible, transition in time and space - all are embodied in the lingering tone of a bell").

Central to these works is the sound of the sh� - a Japanese instrument with a tone similar to an accordion, played here in a spacious, lulling manner. "Tomo� (revolving life)" creates a sense of continuity, moving from the sounds of flowing water to the songs of crickets and loons, frequently punctuated by the mournful sound of the shô�. In a wonderful display of improvisational skill, the sounds quickly transform, becoming harsh and angry as a swarm of insects and just as quickly giving way to the soft chiming of bells.

Sitting in my urban flat, surrounded by the tumult of civilization, I was concerned that the peacefulness of this music might be shattered by my surroundings; fortunately, I was wrong. Outside sounds, in fact, became welcome additions to the sounds coming from the speakers - my windows shook and creaked as loons cried out; a passing car blared Mexican music as Buddhist chants wove a gentle, calming tapestry; neighbors' voices came through the walls as flutes, drums and washes of electronic sounds appeared and dissolved into thin air.

Maybe the greatest pleasure of listening to Suspended in Amber is in discovering the sense of balance pervading it. Never does it become dull, mushy or so soft that its meaning is lost. It does not assault the listener with grandiose ideas and self-indulgent technical prowess. Instead, it conveys a subtle sense of impermanence and of creative interplay of musicians whose level of sensitivity is uncommon in much contemporary expression.

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