I don’t usually write live reviews, because I think it’s weird to describe something that categorically isn’t available for someone to hear. It’s also rare for me to write reviews where you can’t hear at least a single to know what the music sounds like. So you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because I’m about to review one of only two performances of the as-yet-unrecorded Ari Picker composition Lion and the Lamb.
You might know Ari Picker better as the songwriter of the now-retired orchestral folk outfit Lost in the Trees. Since the end of his previous project, he’s turned his eye firmly to orchestration. Lion and the Lamb is a classical work for 11 musicians: string quartet, french horn, saxophonist, pianist, drummer, bassist, and two vocalists. The classical and indie-rock performers that made up the temporary crew included Phil Moore of Bowerbirds, who opened the show with a solo set composed largely of new material. (“It’s my first show in two years,” he announced, but his formidable vocal and songwriting skills didn’t show rust.)
Lion and the Lamb is broken up into eight sections, which range from quite short to long, flowing pieces. Each is, to varying degrees, a tone poem: a piece of music set up largely to convey a feeling rather than to advance a certain motif or theme. As a result, the sections tend to feel less like “songs” and more like “movements.” This is critical to understanding and enjoying Lion and the Lamb; those looking for catchy melodies (even of the classical variety) will not largely feel at home here. If you sit back and let the mood wash over you, you’ll be in a much better place to enjoy the work.
The mood is a peculiar one: fit to Rainer Maria Rilke’s devotional poetry collection Book of Hours, the music delivers dissonant exuberance. “Beauty No. 1 (Descend)”–a complex title for a complex work–opens the set with a gently dissonant piano form consisting of slowly-moving bass notes strung together in a legato style. It is one of three Beauties, including the titular section; the “Descend” pattern is reprised in the last section. A great amount is packed into the opening, so it’s important to listen carefully.
The unexpected dissonance is an integral part of the melodic structure of the whole work: these tunes largely fall in minor keys and play with the listener’s expectation of dissonance. By the time the closing section “Autumn Day / Descend reprise” arrived, the dissonance had been largely normalized in my ear: it felt expected, even warm and comforting. It speaks to strong composition skills that Picker was able to develop that mood from jarring to pleasant throughout the work.
“Beauty No. 1” is instrumental; half of the eight do not feature lyrics. The wordless sections allow the string quartet, horn, and piano to take over the heavy lifting: Picker spends a lot of time layering and building in these pieces. “Chords” in particular sticks out as a successful piece, memorable for its ultimate sonic collage.
When the vocals do appear, they are often accompanied by drums, bass keys, and saxophone; “Panther” and “Sound Will Be Yours” were particularly excellent in this vein. The polyrhthymic drumming and intricate saxophone patterning lock in together, creating an exciting, eyebrow-raising sound. The bass supports these complex rhythms, grounding the whole song. The vocalists layer their notes on top of this controlled chaos, singing dramatically in powerful, enthusiastic tones. With the quartet, horn, and piano melded into this mix, the sound becomes a wonder to behold. The drumming in “Panther” is especially blood-pumping, while the frantic saxophone contributions there and elsewhere are riveting. An indie-rocker might say that it is well-orchestrated post-rock without v/c/v structure; a classical artist might say they are highly stylized, dramatic tone poems. Whatever you call the music, it is beautiful in an unusual way.
Picker’s arrangements straddle the border between indie-rock and classical: some melodies weren’t repeated enough for indie-rock standards, while the noisy kit drumming might rustle some classical feathers. But for the open-minded listener of music, this was a rare, unique offering. Picker said that he hopes to record the work, as well as write more in this vein–I hope that occurs. The complex beauty requires the stretching of the ear and mind a bit, but connects with the heart and emotions quickly. May that tension ever continue.