EP / ALBUM REVIEW OF “ELLE” COMPOSER / PIANIST LISA CULLUM Written by Kerry Barnes
INTRODUCTION. “Elle” is the debut album by UK composer / pianist Lisa Cullum. So finely drawn and fingertips on point, this is a woman’s journey towards independence. “Elle” meaning ‘she’ has a special resonance with Lisa, because all the tracks on this album start with the letter ‘L’ and is also an acronym of her maiden name. Lisa, a London based composer, uses her classical training as a child as a marker of influence and I’m sure you will hear this in her epic and cinematic music. So, lets begin!
Track 1. “Lost” This is the first track of a ‘suite’ describing a journey of uncertainty, sadness, a real yearning but finally when her feet touchdown on a bed of safety and security. A darkness fills the air, imposing itself upon us. I am immediately taken back to the film “The Shining” with it’s deep tuba, as it emerges from the depths of the orchestra, and following a road to who knows what or where. A shimmering cymbal with silver arms reaches out to envelope the dark, dark bass, a not so nice welcome, I think. A pulse of fear, beats out it’s morse-code. Steady, repetitious and with a sense of forboding. Symphonic strings ask to join in, tentatively at first. I am so aware of this minor tonality, I feel it in the pit of my stomach…….where has Lisa come from and how did she end up here?? She is completely LOST. A micro-tonal portamente forces it’s chromaticism upon us, and slides up at will. Coming sharply into focus, a beautiful piano motif, swollen with reverberation, just singing it’s song. A pan flute expresses a counter melody. They share the space evenly, in a gentle fugal matter. An imposing sea-jade wave comes crashing upon the shore, spreading itself, so all can see. I sense that this lost island has never been explored before! A basso-continuo is still with us, sharing and developing a wall of sound that is so cinematic. Quite epic indeed. A distant choir of maidens have heard this wall of sound and come to see it for themselves. They stay well back, possibly in fear. Their harmonies are strong, but their message is secret. We will not hear their words. They complete the sound. A panoramic entity of sound. A mournful cello beckons to a metronomic piano, it’s bell chiming with perfect measure. A coda makes it’s way forward as a Siamese gong say’s “Wait! You’re going nowhere!!” ……and with a wish, releases a golden confetti upon me. Now I am lost, so I reach out to an open hand, so finely drawn, but alas, our fingers cannot meet, just yet.
Track 2. “Lament” A heavy and sombre cello speaks to us of an uneasy entrapment, rising and falling in it’s abandonment, and with the most beautiful tone control that can only be the master of vibrato and bow pressure. A leitmotif of pianistic wonder makes it’s presence known, it too has a heavy heart. “Where are we all?” …….my chest heaves a forlorn sigh, and as I breathe out I am chased by the foamy waves of timpani and kettle drums, as they roll me to the shore, kissing the sand, and polishing pebbles. A beautiful flute harmonises a 3rd above the cello in tongues of silver skirls, it speaks. The full orchestra is now in spine-tingling mode, and all I can do is sit back and let it permeate through me!! I feel the stilettoed points of pizzicato from the strings in un-bowed fashion. Their music-box is even dissonant for one second, but is quickly resolved. Another cymbal casts it’s silver light on me, as it gently meets with itself, imploding. A paired back string orchestra sounds suddenly desolate, sparse and in despair, following a track to who knows where?? An impending cello coda cries it’s heart out, but is anybody listening???
Track 3. “Longing” By far the longest track on Lisa’s EP at 6.29. The piano is very much at the forefront here, with an unusual sound, almost as if it has been ‘prepared’ by John Cage. It’s a very beautiful sound, perfect for this track’s purpose. The higher registers are at play and seem very music-box like to me. Is there a ‘longing’ to be back in a safe and loved bedroom, where a pretty pink ballerina dances her pirouettes to music?? I wonder. I am certainly sensing ‘nostalgia’ as the cello and piano are entwined in a graceful dance, perfectly punctuated by gentle brushes on the chimes, so silvery, so glittery, pretty pink ballerina also agrees!! There is musical intensity with a ‘unison’ between piano and strings, strengthening the ethereal melody. Am loving the ‘echoes’ of instrument one, distant, but very present, giving the piece a filigree message. The orchestra is slightly more pared down in this track, but is so welcome and very artistic. In the bass, occasionally, there are normal piano chords which compliment the musical terrain, at letter 3 of a maiden name. Lisa points her finger to say “you may now dance” as a golden harp, a cello, and the prepared piano, rehearse with the pretty pink ballerina. The winding mechanism reaches it’s stop, finality with no fade out. It is left longing for more.
Track 4. “Leaving” I feel a shift towards a woman’s independence, a sense of urgency somehow, getting closer and closer. We start with a solo sound that I can only describe as three instruments in one!!.....a bell, a harp, and a piano without it’s shell on. Very effective use of ‘fermata’ is present, allowing phrases to breathe easily. It is truly beautiful indeed. A wine glass with a wet fingertip, circling, wining in the background, a form of musical tinnitus all it’s own. Our bell-harp is plucked to perfection with expert sparseness. Lisa is truly ‘leaving all that she has known’ …..and all I have known with her. Strings with elastic gut, stretch the openings of each bow, in an uneasy portamente, a very microtonal mood, not yet knowing what is certain?? Gathering momentum, a percussive thread makes itself known, it grows and develops, Lisa is running with her crescendo, on a vast panoramic beach, the wind flowing through her fair hair, her tanned limbs run with her, barefoot and beautiful, she is being chased by this possible uncertainty. Stop!! Suddenly!! As she catches her salty breath, a dear friend whispers in her shell like ear, “I am the bell-harp, I have come back to calm you” ……she gently listens to his song, so soothing. Freedom awaits her! I can totally see why this track in particular, is a great favourite for Lisa on Spotify!!
Track 5. “Liberty” To start, this track is at slight odds with itself as a beautifully crafted major tonality sings through a harp, intensely beautiful, then as in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, a demonic brass colour is quickly upon us, a defiant wolf in sheep’s clothing. A singular harp, plucks on beats 1 and 4, speaking of the ‘crossing-over’ of the bar line, will Lisa be able to cross her own human bar line?? A crashing of waves and cymbals invite a melancholy oboe to counter the melodic line, gorgeous layering, an exquisite sound. A change of key invites some glorious vocals, how beautifully they sing on a singular vowel, their harmonisations most excellently orchestrated. This is now a totally epic and cinematic experience, with 3D glasses on!! The bells of ‘liberty’ strike out their message,……come on Lisa…..you will be free, I promise!! The maidens choir are now reaching heights of crucifying crescendo and all with perfect intonation. The terrain begins to quiet, but there is a surge of emotion in me, and it carries me for a while. Then something amazing happens!!......as I ride this enormous wave with Lisa, my hairs stand on end and chills permeate my body. A devoted gathering of Siamese Drummers begin to form, with the biggest drums you’ve ever seen!! They lash out a 6 note rhythm with emotional and physical intensity, their stance is rigid, as they obey their folklore. The voices of liberty scale the highest heights, effortlessly. Well I never, another 6 note rhythm has appeared, this time in the body of the strings, with dogged determination. They suddenly drop to the ground, this time to follow the bell-harp, it’s tired and can’t take much more. It comes to rest and Lisa finally gets what she has longed for. A ‘tierce de picardie’ cradles her in it’s wonderful major tonality, so welcome. Finally, the journey towards independence is achieved. B R A V O ! ! Outro. The finely drawn hands reach out to each other again. Their fingertips meet, and the spark of life is continued once more.