Lea Bertucci (Queens, NY)

by Michael J. Cyrs

The setting: A concrete WWII-era bunker.

The studio: Abandoned corridors of metal and empty space.

The instrument: An old silver alto saxophone.

These aren’t the average constraints you’d encounter when recording music, but JFund awardee Lea Bertucci isn’t an average composer. “I am more interested in creating architecture and physical spaces with my music, which is why I focus on texture, timbre, and harmony,” she explains. Considering this approach, trying out recording techniques in an old bunker doesn’t sound that obtuse. After listening to a completed work by Bertucci, it seems perfectly normal. Metal Aether, easily one of the most compact and engaging neoclassical releases of 2018, embodies and emboldens these concepts.

Particularly notable about Aether is its focus on texture in place of melody. “I find that melody often functions as a musical equivalent to language, it mimics speech in a certain way that communicates ideas, narratives, and emotion.” This sentiment echoes throughout the album’s four tracks. Just like Bertucci used the bunker as a studio, Metal Aether uses the studio as a major component of the recording. Beyond the bases of environment and timbre, not much else exists in the albums vacuum. In turn, one could call the album minimalist. Dig your fingers deeper into the meditative spaces, and you’ll find almost the opposite to be true.

“Patterns for Alto” is the most conventional piece here. Bertucci plays two notes at a rapid rhythm. A third note or overtone will occasionally appear and break the form, which gives the piece an immense character. You can focus on the repetition and familiarity in the more consistent notes, but elements of the saxophone’s unpredictability will continuously bring you back to the chaos of reality. The same ideas came through when recording in the bunker: “A sound heard in this space has a life for about 4.5 seconds after sounding, reflecting through the auxiliary chambers.” It’s not just the physical space that reflects sound, but the inside of the horn. It’s only natural that notes will take on a different character after sounding, and Bertucci embraces this physicality with aplomb.

Although the saxophone makes numerous other appearances throughout the record, it’s Bertucci’s use of tape machines and drone that colorize the other three tracks. “I recorded the saxophone parts first, and then sort of developed those sounds by adding tape collage of environmental recordings as well as recordings of other instruments, such as piano and vibraphone.” “Sustain and Dissolve” does as its title suggests. Its first ten minutes paint a sustained sax collage before dissolving into a vibraphone section as a reimagined gong meditation. Processed nature sounds fill the remaining spectrum with smatterings of familiar, yet unsettling white noise.

On the final and finest track on Metal Aether, “At Dawn,” Bertucci uses another abstract instrument. Panning, an often overlooked method of dramatizing music, creates an isolated environment. Treated vibraphone bounces back and forth in the stereo mix while more tapes generate a static picture in the forefront.

A big part of my practice is working in multichannel contexts whenever I can, so as far as I am concerned, the stereo field is a two-channel array that has a special relationship to human physicality, I am very interested in playing around within the stereo field to create a sense of dynamic movement in the music.

Notice how Bertucci uses the words “practice” and “working” in the same sentiments where she uses “playing.” It’s this combination of verbs that makes “At Dawn” such a treat to listen to. It also opens the door to a handful of compositional interpretations. Does the music make you feel trapped inside its environment, or do you feel a release? Are the surrounding feelings intentional or just a result of different composition ideas? Does Bertucci intend to intensify humanity on her recordings or escape it? Unpacking each answer could take a lifetime to fully explain. Like the process of critiquing Metal Aether, explaining it becomes richer the more you dig in.

Similar to the recordings, Bertucci’s education and background are idiosyncratic. It’s natural to hear that she’s influenced by artistic mediums beyond music. The age-old love story between experimental film and neoclassical music is constantly on display in Bertucci’s work. However, the main drivers of each, melody and plot, are poignantly absent in her work.

Visual mediums have always been an important part of my creative practice in general. I have a degree in photography and film, and am very much engaged with the work of experimental cinema, so it makes sense to me that you hear filmic elements in my work. The relationship between a film and a composition has a lot of parallels, insofar that they both exist as architectonic disturbances in time and space. I learned a lot about musical composition by studying film in terms of creating repetition, pacing, structure, and creating a mood.

In following this credo, Bertucci is the ideal artist for anyone disillusioned with the ideas of conventional musical language and story. Sure, there’s already a history of neoclassical music shirking conventional melodic functionality. However, Bertucci’s own ideas in the genre are fresh takes. She explains how her use of an old, broken saxophone actually helped push her music forward instead of backward. “When I was first given the saxophone I currently play, it was almost unplayable by conventional standards… I played this broken instrument for a long while, developing specific techniques that brought out interesting microtonal gestures and other extended techniques so that I could almost reimagine the instrument.” Bertucci accomplished that goal of repurposing an instrument, and allowed for a wealth of interpretations of her pieces. Her music functions not as a story being told, but as a canvas on which the listener can paint any picture they like. “What one person considers foreboding, someone else considers joyous or calming,” she says.

Bertucci’s JFund piece is still in its infant stages. Still, receiving the award has opened doors for her that a compelling work is sure to walk through. “The ability to have resources at my disposal to work in close collaboration with an ensemble is immeasurably important to create a fully realized work.” What she’s been granted beyond money is something more essential to the artistic process: time. In a method similar to how Bertucci used the space of the bunker, she’ll naturally bend and reconstitute the time she’s been granted into something memorable and satisfying. Whether she uses a broken saxophone, a new one, or no saxophone at all, it’ll be worth the wait.