One challenge of this frustrating time has been finding methods to handle grief. The loss of loved ones, enforced isolation, and abounding uncertainty have only heightened anxiety and its painful effects. Learning how to cope with grief and work through it is imperative for one’s mental health.
Saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis has done much to try to allay her own emotions after the harsh period she dealt with in 2019. Davis lost her father early in the year and was trying to cope with this devastating event when the pandemic descended. She turned to research and creation to work herself out again. Her new recording, Portals, Volume 1: Mourning, is a culmination of a year of suffering, accepting, and channeling her mourning through a unique process to find equilibrium through composition and reflection.
Davis has always found ways to deepen her musical work by allowing her current preoccupations drive the generation of her art. When her father suddenly passed, Davis was stunned and needed to find a way to express her feelings. She read about grief and trauma, studying the work of Bessel van der Kolk, Mary Oliver, Resmaa Menakem, and Margaret Stroebe. Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief did not occur in a similar sequence for Davis, so she looked toward the self-help and mystical teachings her father expressed interest in, even up until his passing.
Looking back on her time with her father, Davis began to realize that she must deal not only with the immediate results of his passing but with the legacy of residual pain that he inflicted, intentionally or not. Living at a distance from one another, and his workaholic lifestyle, made things difficult in their relationship. Davis was still wrestling with this.
A welcome aid to Davis’s recovery and work was a residency at the McDowell Artists’ Colony in New Hampshire. At McDowell, she was able to begin sculpting what would become the pieces on Portals, Volume 1. A grant from the Jerome Foundation made it possible for her to complete the remainder of the compositions and recording in 2020.
Portals, Volume 1 is a collection of pieces that Davis wrote for her current quintet along with a string quartet, her first time orchestrating for this instrumentation. The quintet has been her regular group since 2019 and features trumpeter Marquis Hill, pianist Julian Shore, bassist Chris Tordini, and drummer Allan Mednard. For the string quartet, Davis knew that she desired string players who placed improvisation at the center of their practice. Having had the good fortune to work previously with a number of multi-talented players, she was able to recruit violinists Mazz Swift and Josh Henderson along with violist Joanna Mattrey and cellist Mariel Roberts.
The recording was made at Oktaven Audio in Mt. Vernon, New York during December 2020. The studio was a perfect environment for the musicians, and each had COVID tests prior to the dates. Engineer Ryan Streber offered advantageous assistance, helping with pacing and following the musical scores, insuring that every nuance was captured.
The music that Davis composed followed three distinct themes, all tied to recovering from the effects of trauma. The first refers to the intellectual thinking brain and how grief can reorganize one’s memories. The other two focus on the emotional and somatic impacts of grief, one relating to the experience of love and the other associated with bodily and chemical reactions to traumatic events. The experience of trauma is remembering, and reflecting on the past helps to consolidate, as feelings can be complicated and change over time. Examining her bodily reactions and re-drawing physical elements like heart rate, breathing, and eye movements, became a central part of Davis’s practice. These strategies recognized the full scope of using her body as a portal in the process of healing.
The recording begins with “Yesterday’s Seven Thousand Years,” a dynamic piece for the quintet that builds from the rhythm of a quatrain from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, a poem that Davis discovered when looking back at her father’s photo, accompanied by a quote from this poem as the caption, in his high school yearbook. The next two pieces, “Hop On Hop Off” and “Highlighter Hearts,” are paired, and reflect on specific memories of Davis’s father, fond memories that are also tied to discontent. The first mirrors a hop on, hop off bus tour, the rhythm is the bus slowing down and speeding up, skipping and extending through the piece before halting for a cello feature from Roberts. The swirling “Highlighter Hearts” refers to loving but rushed letters that her father used to send, written in highlighter as it was at hand in the quick, as he was always working.
Davis meditated on nature frequently during her process, especially on textures that could be transferred to human experience. Though her approach to texture in rhythm and harmony can be heard on every piece, “On Stone” is the most representative of this grief as tactile manifestation, as Davis asked the string players to express this hard nature in their improvisations. Continuing that thought, “How to Stop a Drop of Water from Evaporating” takes the rhythm and rationale of one of her father’s riddles (the answer is to throw the water into the sea) and construct a groove-based tune. This piece and “Acephalous Placebo” channel Davis’s father’s interest in energy and faith-based healing, the latter utilizing the ratio of 5:6 to inform the harmonic and rhythmic directions of the composition.
The quiet “Respite” is just that and a thematic foreshadowing of the recording’s conclusion. The tense “Left” deals with the apprehension of being abandoned as a child and the anxiety of not knowing what to do, a violin feature building into an intense ensemble explosion. The subtle “Faced” is entirely improvised and leads to “The Inflated Chariot Awaits Defeat,” a moving meditation on pride and its senselessness with Davis’s poetry and saxophone driving into a dramatic ensemble workout. The recording concludes with the haunting “Worldliness and Non-Duality,” which honors Davis’s father’s last words to her, about his attempts to accept non-duality.
Caroline Davis’s Portals, Volume 1: Mourning is simultaneously melancholy and bright. This is entirely appropriate as the best way to conquer grief is to face the trauma and mindfully engage in its bodily affectations, a message to reflect on as the world begins to blossom again.
released August 27, 2021
Caroline Davis - alto saxophone
Marquis Hill - trumpet
Julian Shore - piano
Chris Tordini - bass
Allan Mednard - drums
Mazz Swift - violin
Josh Henderson - violin
Joanna Mattrey - viola
Mariel Roberts - cello
Recorded by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio (December 2020)
Mixed & Mastered by Dave Darlington
Original Artwork by Alexa Lima
35mm Photography by Attis Clopton
supported by 58 fans who also own “Portals, Volume 1 : Mourning”
This music has everything I need: acoustic instruments, a slow build, layers of atypical harmonies and rhythms being added each pass through, subtle melodies and combinations. Excellent work! Little James