It seems considerably more than coincidental that on the day after the conclusion of the Ecstatic Music Festival -- curated by New Amsterdam Records co-founder Judd Greenstein -- the label would issue its latest release, a divergent work that is equal parts audio and visual.
Released on March 29, Letters to Distant Cities is not just the newest addition to the burgeoning indie classical genre. First and foremost, Letters is a poetry album, with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond lending her silken voice to the recitation of poetry by Mustafa Ziyalan. The poems are in turn connected by wordless musical interludes written and performed by multi-instrumentalist Rob Moose.
Ziyalan displays the delicate ability to conjure vivid mental images out of minimalist material; his poems offer lucid vignettes that are romantic without being sentimental. Phrase by vivid phrase burrows into the memory like a fever dream -- from "A sugar cube in rain" to "a blindfolded balloon waiting for the slingshots" -- but the effect is somehow one of emotional reticence. There is at once a palpable yearning at work and an omnipresent sense of alienation to counteract its positive progress. The world Ziyalan lays before us is one in which the solitary "she" present in the poems seems to meld into the landscape, into the earthly elements of wind and water and sky, all while retaining her distinctive qualities. Her implicit resilience is the one constant, the foundation upon which the poems are built.
Worden's vocal delivery is as versatile spoken as it is sung -- at times Ziyalan's words dance with warm and knowing whimsy; elsewhere, Worden emits an icy intimacy dominated by startling detachment. Moose's music is a set of effective miniatures imbued with intrigue, holding their own fascination while sowing anticipation for the next poem.
Interestingly, Letters is most revelatory in its approach to the liner notes -- featuring photography by album producer Murat Eyuboglu -- which provide the visual linchpin that tethers Ziyalan's poetry to a tangible central character, modeled by an enigmatic Jamie Ansley ("She is the most unknown fruit."). Eyuboglu's stark black and white images elicit a kind of condoned voyeurism from the viewer, as Ansley is pictured in various indoor and outdoor scenes that inexplicably meld the forlorn and the hopeful. But rather than pursue this imagery through the conventional album booklet, the liner notes consist of what are essentially 24 postcards, each containing a poem and its corresponding photograph. Here, liner notes are not merely a servile addendum to the audio, but rather they constitute a distinct experience in and of itself.
The poems are bookended by two songs, providing structural balance. The opener, entitled, "The Sea," by My Brightest Diamond, finds Worden at her most ethereal yet, her voice hovering mellifluously over a somber drone, before segueing into the kind of indelible rhythmic groove Worden's fans have come to enjoy. The closer, Clare and the Reasons' "Invisible," is a hazy concoction of floating harmonies and gently persistent banjo that reinforces the dreamlike state that permeates the project.
Letters to Distant Cities achieves a rare feat -- it gifts the listener with a truly multimedia experience that one can rarely access through a conventional album in the privacy of home. The willingness of New Amsterdam Records to venture into multiple artistic disciplines simultaneously reaps great rewards here, challenging the listener-viewer to engage ever more deeply.
For more information about the Letters to Distant Cities project, visit https://www.newamsterdamrecords.com/#Album/Letters_to_Distant_Cities.