Album Review: Abby Gundersen – Aurora
From the opening lines of Abby Gundersen’s album Aurora, listeners feel an immediate sense of calm. There’s a spirit captured in the album that is equal parts hopeful and satisfyingly curious. That is to say there is such searching in many of the tracks, albeit without words. This instrumental album from Seattle violinist, pianist, and vocalist Abby Gundersen is sure to make many fans not just of her musical style, but contemporary classical music as a genre.
Gundersen’s music continues to evolve from her earlier offering on Time Moves Quickly. Here on Aurora it may seem as though the songs are constructed with similar delicacies, but they seem to have a patience about them. It’s like she’s written this album to be enjoyed with a different sort of spirit; this is not just something to put on while you study (as I said about TMQ). Instead, Aurora is an experience in and of itself. To allow this album to serve as a “backdrop” to something else is to do the album a disservice. Seriously, take it in.
The ethereal, layered sounds on the opening track “Aurora” provide the perfect introductory salvo for an album full of contemplative pieces. The second track “Windows” invites a “look in” to the rest of the album. The melody line is crisp, moving, and encourages reflection. I could say what pictures it brings to my mind, but that does the listener harm. What do you see through the windows? The warm hues of the melody allow me to feel all sorts of nostalgic scenes.
With a bit more subtle sincerity, “Lift the Darkness” reminds me of something that could have come from a serious film score. (In fact, I think Abby would be extraordinarily gifted at scoring a film… for all of you indie filmmakers out there.) The song invites images of loneliness, lonesomeness, or perceptive solitude, depending upon your own take on it. But there’s something about the way the piano and violin flirt with one another. They’re not quite ready to dance in the harmonies present on other tracks. Instead, they write almost separate songs; that’s why I feel such loneliness in it. But maybe, just maybe, that’s precisely the darkness being lifted throughout.
Fittingly after the darkness is lifted, “Sunrise” takes a beautifully optimistic melody into what feels like a sunlit room. It conjures images of my own family and dear friends; I think of my loved ones playing piano in these kind of environments. The composition moves with a kind of joyful simplicity. The repetitive lower hand provides a kind of hypnotic, soothing base to the protagonist that is the main melody line. It feels like a story, even if I’m not quite sure of the plot.
In the middle of the album there are three shorter songs, “Impressions,” “Falling,” and “Bring the Light” that all seem to occupy a similar space for me. They are conversations between instruments. Each carries on a kind of delicate communication between the layers in the song. From the harmonics on “Impressions” to the violin harmonies of “Bring the Light” there’s plenty to enjoy with each of these varied-yet-related sounds.
Then there’s “Waves,” definitely the class of the album. It’s a tour de force on an album that encourages engagement with both the sense and the mind. “Waves” pushes listeners out of the comfortable melodic violin tracks and into a sometimes-unsettling piano piece. There are abstractions and mutations of sound on this track that do accurately capture the movement of the waves. From the crashing to the sheer vastness, the piece invites the listener to dive right into the magnitude of it all. When the violin arrives in force part way through the song, it changes the complexion of the piece infinitely. As the layers build upon one another, there’s a feeling of grandiosity not unlike the ocean herself. It’s really something to behold. Bravo, Abby, bravo.
“Hearing is Seeing” finally invites in Abby’s vocals. It’s the perfect way to end the album. Where many of the other tracks spoke volumes without lyrics, this track allows a minimal piano part to support Abby’s own prayerful voice. It could be a love letter, a prayer, or just a thoughtful reflection. But each of these elements reveals the heart of a searcher, a seeker, one who questions the essence of things. And that’s where the album leaves the listener, still contemplating but with what feels like some sort of direction. It’s the way we feel when we’ve just done whatever it is that energizes us; we feel ready, anew, to take on the world no matter how vast or how numbingly simple that world might be for us.
This is, as I said, an album to experience. It is good for the heart and the mind. I can’t help but put it into the context of much other music coming out of the Pacific Northwest these days. Rather than pushing the envelop on genres in folk or rock, Gundersen’s hopeful, seeking style is a welcome voice of direction. With her chords, structures, and rhythms, Gundersen encourages listeners to seek out a silver lining, to live with good questions, and find answers with a humble softness rather than brashness.