For around 20 minutes, Joanna Borrett quite gracefully transported me to a tranquil countryside scene where peaceful folk were going around their peaceful businesses and the local tavern was brimming with merry enjoyment. It was a shame it eventually had to end.
Joanna Borrett is a musician and classical composer based in the town of Peterborough in the United Kingdom. After initially facing a lukewarm reception into the circles of classical music, Borrett took it upon herself to break the boundaries of this scene to make its entry easier for the upcoming generations, and especially for women. In the process, Joanna’s improvisational approach to composition and her ear training-focused techniques have helped her develop a sound that’s crisp, yet soft, strongly flavored, yet immediately delicate and approachable.
On Clan, her latest album, we are given 9 pieces, each one roughly two and a half minutes long, and populated almost exclusively by cello performances that drip with all the regal qualities the instrument so naturally possesses, and by impassioned piano deliveries that go hand-in-hand with the cello lines, creating a sensational, lively duet. The music takes on quite a sweet English folk flavor, brought forth by the chosen instruments. The moderately cavernous reverb conjures up a chapel hall, and the compositions themselves go from the wailing melancholy, to the oddly whimsical, all the way to the starkly serene.
The album is also home to quite stirring harmonic complexity in cuts such as the seventh and eighth, ‘Armour and Battlefield’, aptly named. The pieces see the piano and the cello in an upwards struggle for control over the arrangement, where the growing unease, brought forth by calculated dissonance and harmonic maneuvering, feel quite dynamic, giving the composition a particularly human feel, if making it also one of the album’s less approachable pieces. ‘Chant’ is a piece defined by a resigned, vocalized chant. The dramatic effect of the strummed cello string and vulnerabilities witnessed in the voice inflictions make this piece the perfect after-the-battle weep for peace.
The narrative that can be summoned by song titles invoke a peaceful village that was perhaps subjected to a raid. From the peaceful morning to the call to battle, to the exhausted aftermath. Each chapter grows in the sense of unease and musical chaos until the sublime ‘Circle’ concludes things in style and grace. Bringing the piano and cello again in beautiful harmony with one another. The contrast in harmony between the starter ‘One Morning’ and ‘Betrayal’ is an eloquent display of Borrett’s compositional range, and a testament to her ability to convey emotions with extremely simplistic means and a minimal arsenal. And the contrast in dynamic between the joyous and tiny ‘Reel’ and the martial ‘Armour and Battlefield’ displays another facet of the composer’s range when it comes to dealing with rhythmic nuance and how she could portray a scene of warm companionship with the former and she could pit than warmth against the heat of battle in the latter. And with a centerpiece like the gorgeously moving ‘Highlands’, we get our all-encompassing proof of Borrett’s masterful control over the few aspects that constitutes her music.
The experienced Joanna Borrett, an educator, and a musical mentor to younger generations, is not holding back on Clan. A short album filled with meaning, excitement, resignation, regret, and acceptance, conveyed by a simple but elegant duet that is as old as time. Joanna Borrett’s Clan is as touching in its music as it is in its simple prowess.