25 November 2004
Time and tides
Way back in, oh, October  or so, I made some favorable reference herein to pianist/composer Catherine Marie Charlton and her collection of piano improvisations called Jeweled Rain.
Before there was Jeweled Rain, though, there was Strange Attractors, a spiffy title indeed. In case you've forgotten your physics, as I surely have, systems in nature tend to display one or more of four different types of cycle, known as "attractors", and the variety characterized as "strange" is a process that is confined, that is stable, and yet nonetheless never behaves exactly the same way twice. (If you have a better, or at least more coherent, explanation, please send it in.) The strange attractor, therefore, is at the very heart of chaos theory and, if you think about it, most forms of musical improvisation. Ms Charlton, who studied acoustical engineering, obviously knows these things, and what is most distinctive about these performances, it seems to me, is the sense of space that she's developed to surround the usual 88 notes. I wouldn't characterize her playing here as "intimate", exactly; there's always a slight, possibly even measurable, distance between my heart and my head, and this is the area to which Strange Attractors, I think, is addressed. This came out in 1995, and I'm sorry I managed to miss it for six years.
River Dawn, her 2001 release, is something else entirely. Billed as "piano meditations", it's an hour-long piece that, says the composer, "is about the creative flow, energy, calm, peace and sense of freedom that entered my life after finding the courage to follow my passion and live my dreams." We should all be so courageous. There are nine CD tracks, but this is not a collection of nine songs; this is an hour to spend in quiet contemplation of who we are and where we ought to be. I worry that this sort of description might get her shuffled off to some sort of New Age pigeonhole, but then again, there are worse places to be.
Which brings us up to The Undershore, her 2004 release, which, true to form, is not more of the same. On many of the tracks, she's accompanied by percussionist J. Jody Janetta and/or flutist Nikkos. The music is intense, even in its quietest moments (say, "The Lonely Cobbler"), and is almost impossible to relegate to the status of "background" music; even typing this seems like an unworthy distraction while she plays. Three tracks are new versions of selections from her earlier albums, and while they're recognizable as such, Charlton's gift for improvisation makes them new again. Most surprising, perhaps, is her variation on the theme of the folk classic "Shenandoah," which moves slowly and deliberately, like the wide Missouri itself.
They say, if you want to get someone's attention, whisper. Catherine Marie Charlton, on these twelve tracks, speaks as softly and as distinctly as anyone.