Graded on a Curve:
Elori Saxl,
The Blue of Distance

Elori Saxl is a musician and filmmaker originally from Minneapolis who currently resides in New York City, where she is a third of the group Alpenglow. Along with working extensively as a composer and director, Saxl’s recently released her debut album, The Blue of Distance, on cloudy clear wax, compact disc and digital, through Western Vinyl. Combining a chamber group with analog synth and digitally processed recordings of wind and water, it coheres into a powerful and beautiful meditation on technology’s role in our relationship to place and memory.

The background scoop on this record is that half was written by Saxl while in the Adirondack mountains during summer, and the other half formulated on an island on Lake Superior in the midst of a frozen winter. Saxl brought to the project a conceptual idea relating to how contemporary technology allows us access to far off people and locations without being in the same physical space.

Notably, Saxl’s album title derives from Rebecca Solnit’s book of autobiographical essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the author coining the term in reference to the “phenomenon of faraway mountains appearing blue due to light particles getting lost over distance.” Physical distance distorts as it relates to sight. Something similar happens with time as it pertains to memory.

In Saxl’s words, The Blue of Distance’s summer half took shape “amid lakes, rivers, and moss-laden forest floors.” Obviously, the winter side of the scheme was sharply opposite, with the contrast reflected in Saxl’s experiences; the summer was one of her happiest times and the following winter “a low place.”

Rather that accentuate the emotional divide, Saxl strove for cohesiveness, choosing to look back on photos and videos from the summer so that remembering would hopefully provide an emotional reset. As the above emphasis on the record’s halves hopefully underscores, Saxl’s attempt didn’t work out so well. Instead, The Blue of Distance became something else, infusing the conceptual with the personal.

Smartly, there isn’t a direct progression from one half to the other, as three relatively concise “wave” segments are interspersed amongst the “blue” pieces, with three of those four spreading out and delivering the album the majority of its runtime. The exception is opener “Before Blue,” which effectively serves as a prelude as its 92 seconds succinctly establish the record’s combination of nature samples, electronics and an ensemble comprised of violin, viola, cello, clarinet, oboe and bassoon.

Saxl is responsible for everything else, including an electronic pattern that arises early in second track “Blue.” Initially, and briefly, it suggests the thump of club-techno but then morphs into a repetitiveness redolent of a CD stuttering in place. The crucial difference is that the motif is exceptionally musical as it extends throughout the piece.

The chamber ensemble’s stabs at the cyclical in “Blue” can surely bring Reich and Glass to mind, but these influences aren’t overstated and in fact essentially evaporate in “Wave I,” where shimmering effervescence tinged with a hint of pitch-shifting mingles with what seems to be a MIDI clarinet. “Wave II” opens with what sounds like a scuba diving loop as the horn wiggles, the strings resonate, and the electronic tones gently distort.

Minimalist similarities return in “Memory of Blue,” though it needs to be pointed out that Saxl cites the impact of electronic dance music on her debut, specifically how modular synths are used to create pulsing beats (that techno snippet early in “Blue” was no accident). This connection drives home her record as a highly rhythmic experience while it ultimately settles into a neoclassical zone, at least in the “blue” compositions.

Of the “wave” pieces, it’s the third, sequenced as The Blue of Distance’s penultimate track, that best embodies neoclassical tranquility while thankfully avoiding the too prevalent innocuousness of the form. And in a late twist, the opening moments of the closing title track seem to be calling out for a thumping dancefloor beat that never emerges. Instead, the music hovers, glides, soars and finally dissipates as Saxl brings her record to an engagingly contemplative conclusion.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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