I’m pretty sure French vocal music wouldn’t be considered the type of music one would blast in one’s car. Well, I was. Until I listened to, and most definitely blasted in my car, Susanna Phillips’s debut solo album Paysages.
Easily one of the best solo vocal albums of the year, Paysages gives the listener more than a collection of songs; within it is music so purely fluid, breathtaking, and surreal that a listen is more of a journey to a separate world than an addition to an existing one. Phillips has included three composers on the album: Debussy, Fauré, and Messiaen. While all three are French, lived in similar time periods, and use comparable sounds occasionally, each composer brings out a different perspective in their choice of texts and music, and Phillips takes advantage of this. She is able to take each song, which posses unique destinations and atmospheres, and create a true collection, something that is varying but connected.
The first six tracks on the album are Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées,” or “forgotten songs,” composed between 1885 and 1887. The song cycle is said to have marked Debussy’s evolution from a more traditional composer to one of his own style. Like many of Debussy’s pieces for voice, the vocal lines are natural and feel as if they permanently reside along with the clouds of ambiguous sound the piano creates. The poetry for this collection, by Paul Verlaine, reaches insightful observations through painting-like images (“It weeps in my heart like the rain over the village. What is this exhaustion that penetrates my heart?”).
Phillips latches on to Debussy’s liquid phrases and seems effortless from the moment she allows her voice to flow out to the last trickles of sound. “C’est l’extase,” the first track on the album, is a wandering yet determined. Included are sounds ranging from calm phrases to cries that curve like feathers in air. In contrast, “Chevaux de Bois” is like a train on a track with its steady pace and subtle sforzandos. Myra Huang, Phillips’s accompanist, handles the piano parts perfectly as well. Because of Debussy’s finesse with the instrument, the piano parts are pieces in and of themselves (such as the arpeggios in “Green”). However, with the balance that Huang offers, they allow the voice to be in the appropriate position at each moment.
Messiaen’s “Poémes pour Mi,” with their more dissonant, east-of-France-inspired sounds, show both the musical atmosphere in France after Debussy (though it originally was not accepted fully) and Phillips’s ability to make their slightly unsettling timbres beautiful in their own way. The vocals of Messiaen (written by the composer himself for his first wife, nicknamed “Mi”) are more introverted than Debussy’s and Fauré’s choice of poetry. The music reflects this; the dissonance of the piano and the repetitive tones of the voice seem more like a conversation with oneself than a presentation to another. “Paysage” begins with a ghost-like flutter and includes murmurs of rain-like piano. “Epouvante” is sly and angry. The piano is mushy and assertive, and Phillips’s cries and partially-a cappella statements are chilling. Along with Phillips, Huang gives Messiaen’s pieces the creepy, echo filled accompaniment they need. Because Fauré and Debussy’s songs have generally more soft and delicate sounds, “Poémes pour Mi” give the album just the right amount of angst.
Rounding out the broad representation of French composers on Paysages is Fauré, the composer who resided in the transition from Romanticism to the 20th century’s modernism. The four songs by Fauré on the album aren’t a cycle, but give the listener a sense of his finesse with voice and Phillips’s ability to stand out in these iconic French songs. The poetry from Charles Jean Grandmougin and Romain Bussine is gorgeous and subtle (Reading Grandmougin’s words from “Adieu” is definitely a bonus of the album). “Les Roses d’Ispahan” has a piano part that is almost a perfect blend of Schumann-like Romanticism and glassy impressionism. The classic melody of “Nell” gives Phillips’s the opportunity to take her voice in multiple directions and in a conversational, natural style. “Après un rêve” pairs a simple, solid piano accompaniment with heart-wrenching vocals.
“Adieu,” the last track on the album, is delicate and discusses how everything is subject to change. In it, Grandmougin’s words are (in English), “But alas! The longest of loves are cut short!” I’d like to think that Grandmougin writes about Phillips’s and Paysages–it’s an album that, no matter how long it could go on, can only have one downfall—the moment it stops.