Essential New Music: Lea Bertucci’s “Of Shadow And Substance”

Knowing that Lea Bertucci has made a record doesn’t mean you know what sort of music she’s made or even how she’s made it. At different points, she’s used various woodwinds, her own voice and a tape recorder as sound-makers and sound-shapers. On other occasions, including Of Shadow And Substance, she’s composed pieces for other musicians to play. But you can usually count on those sounds being the starting point, not the point itself. Sounds are a way of dealing with qualities of places, be they social (such as the interpersonal zones that she and Ben Vida investigated last year on Murmurations), environmental (the expanses woven into her last solo LP, 2021’s A Visible Length Of Light) or physical (the careening echoes of a grain silo heard on 2013’s Resonant Spaces).

Bertucci doesn’t play anything on Of Shadow And Substance, but she instigates and intervenes. The album comprises two pieces, both of which were composed to be performed by other musicians, but on each, she is a real-time participant. “Vapours” was commissioned by Quartetto Maurice, a conventionally configured string quartet from Italy. Their instruments were tuned in “just intonation,” an antique system unmarred by the mathematical compromises of the more familiar “equal temperament.” JI unleashes clouds of overtones, which give the music a hovering, bright quality, that’s enhanced by Bertucci’s spatial mixing. Over the course of the piece, the musicians’ long, repeating tones splay out like rays of light split by a prism, creating a state in which time feels suspended. 

The title composition is the murky yin to the first piece’s yang. It evolved out of a pair of endeavors that brought Bertucci to Philadelphia in 2019. During that year, she contributed to an experimental theater piece called Superterranean, which used her music to evoke the vastness of city’s refineries, dams and water-treatment plants. In the course of studying such structures, she learned that the Philadelphia Oil Solutions Refinery, which had been a monstrous blot on the cityscape since 1851, had been the site of a vast explosion just three months before Superterranean was performed at the 2300 Arena. That same year, Ars Nova commissioned her to write something Philly-specific.

The 21-minute “Of Shadows And Substance” is scored for cello, double bass, harp and percussion. Low-pitched, savage bow strokes dominate, offset by occasional high accents as the music progresses from distressed, metallic tones that bring to mind the broken pipe that set off the refinery blast to a looming vastness. In concert, Bertucci recorded each musician’s sounds and fed them back into the mix, creating a dense, violently heaving fog of sound. Then she stripped away the layers, so that unsupported sonorities collapse and corrode at an almost geological pace. [Cibachrome Editions]

—Bill Meyer