A musical journey through the profundity of darkness toward the light
The dark of winter is a great teacher for me. Only through the wisdom which comes with the passage of time, have I learned to appreciate its profundity. Winter’s darkness flies in my face. Either I embrace its power, its beautiful gift of silence, or it consumes me. I prefer the former rather than the latter.
With the celebration of the midwinter on Feb 2nd, a day the ancient Celts called Imbolc, and modern US Americans call Groundhog Day, we have passed the halfway mark of this powerful season. But before we leave the darkness for the light of spring, I want to take time to share some wonderful new music with you.
“Romancing the Dark” is a gorgeous, stirring, and timeless recording by Austin, TX-based musician Suzi Stern. Ms. Stern, or Suzi as she is known to anyone who has experienced that warm, beautiful smile she wears, has spent the bulk of her 30-year career singing the lyrics she has written for other people’s music. But with “Romancing the Dark”, she more fully steps into her own voice by pairing those wordscapes with her own musical creations and arrangements.
The album begins simply, a beautiful cello line, a piano chord, and Suzi’s voice enters. Immediately, the listener knows that this vocal instrument has been perfectly crafted and shaped through a lifetime of practice, attention, respect and heartfelt expression.
“Burn, firefly, tiny torch in the night, ignite like stars lost, earthbound,” she sings. “… yet the star, long since dead, still sends her light home.”
The beautiful, yet simple instrumentation comes to life thanks, in part, to the cello arrangement by Paul Unger, who plays bass on the track. During the solo, the cello lyrically sings out before pulsating to life as if Mr. Unger had somehow been channeling baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. It’s luscious, and rich, and wonderful. I just want to hear it over and over and over again!
But that lushness is just a tease for the intensity we hear a little later in the album during “Sounds are Louder in the Dark.” For this one, imagine that the Turtle Island String Quartet somehow manages to hire the late Dave Brubeck as its arranger. In fact, Suzi’s arrangement won her Grammy consideration on this tune for best arrangement for a vocal!
The string quartet arrangement charges the cello to hold down a bass line against percussion played by Stern partner, pianist-composer George Oldziey. As the cello enters with the bass line, the high strings pluck out a pizzicato phrase that later will be bowed.
“Insomnia. Behind closed eyes,” she begins. And you were surprised she could riff about a bug a la “Firefly.” Now, insomnia will become poetic. But in the process, she will take us though wonderful musical textures. She leaves the shorter, percussive riffs on the verses, for a beautiful legato bridge allowing the strings to stretch out and play their long gorgeous sustained lines among those harmonies so apt for string quartets.
Again her poetry moves us and she tells us, “Angel of light, opens her hand, to kiss her palm and gently laid upon sacred earth, she speaks of the sun -then light- softly.”
Suzi’s poetry often reminds us of the sacredness of our earthly home, of stars, light, and the gift of life. “Sounds are Louder in the Dark,” is a snapshot of those themes which so often find their way into her lyrics.
The album has a tango called “Tango for Tina,” and when the violin takes its gypsy-style solo, I can see the dancers move across the floor. (Of course, I imagine myself as the female partner in my husband’s strong arms as we glide gracefully amid shadow and light. You can insert yourself into your own fantasy. Why not?!)
And as if all that wasn’t enough, how about a little klezmer sound? You can check out the title track, “Romancing the Dark.”
Also, this album has a second song which garnered Grammy consideration. That tune, number four on the album, is called “Hymn.” Its Grammy consideration came in the category, “song of the year.” Once again, in this piece Suzi demonstrates her gift for subtlety and understatement. I found I had to listen a few times, to identify all the instruments as she sang slowly, softly, engagingly, stark piano chords beneath her.
The guitar note, sustaining; the children’s choir, so tight and balanced; perfectly placed violin accompanied by percussion accents; mesh to form the musical canvas for her lovely voice and words of all-encompassing love. It’s simple, lovely, profound.
“Romancing the Dark,” is 11 tracks in all. Only two of the songs are by composers other than Suzi. There is a stirring rendition of a Schwartz & Dietz standard called “Haunted Heart.” Not only is the tune appropriate for the album’s theme, but it demonstrates another uniqueness of this wonderful artist we are exploring here today. Suzi has an ability to find standards that are beautiful yet less well known. She is kind and thoughtful enough to present these pieces to us, helping to keep these classics alive for many years to come.
The other non-Stern composition is from the bassist Paul Unger, whose cello arrangement had me waxing euphoric a little earlier on. If I were forced to pick favorite(s) on the disk, I would allow myself two. One would be “Sounds are Louder in the Dark,” for its wonderful edginess; and the other would be Mr. Unger’s “Sleepwalking Girl.” I could justify one favorite from Suzi and one from one of her musical contributors. Of course, Suzi DID write the lyrics.
“. . .sleepwalking girl awaken life. Forever dream this peace and live that dream.”
The song utilizes a standard vocal, piano, bass, drum configuration and is very bass driven. Unger’s tune and arrangement plays the elements of a stark simple opening, building to the powerful crescendo, bringing in a wonderful bass bowing technique as well as walking that big, fat bass line for us. He brings it back to quietness and out. Ahhh . . .
The last song on the album is very special. “Snow Explorers,” was written for a recording of the Dylan Thomas piece, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” The recording features Suzi reading this timeless classic, punctuated by her original musical interludes.
This seasonal album has become a tradition at my house during the winter holidays. Now, the holidays are not the holidays until I hear Suzi read the Dylan work.
In my opinion, “Romancing the Dark,” is a thinking person’s album, perfect for experiencing in the dark of the winter. Before the light of spring arrives, put a fire in your fireplace, take the CD booklet of lyrics in hand. Then have a good long sit down and read the words as they are sung. Experience their musical settings. It’s that kind of album, an album one experiences more than simply listens to.
To learn more about Suzi Stern and to buy her music, visit:
Author’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, please be aware that “Romancing the Dark,” was, in part, crowd sourced through Kickstarter. My husband and I were backers. Also, I became aware of Suzi’s work when, for a short period of time, she lived and worked in Portland in the early to mid 1990s. She was my vocal coach and a woman I credit with showing me how to find and use my own voice. Without her encouragement and tutelage, it’s hard to imagine having pursued my musical interests and aspirations to the extent that I have. In other words, I’m partial!