Alan Sondheim and Azure Carter: Plaguesong (ESP-Disk')
The album Plaguesong, contains twenty-three tracks, which feature the duo of Alan Sondheim on instruments and Azure Carter as singer-songwriter on half the tracks, while Sondheim presents solo instrumentals on the other. The album, released in 2020, came out at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues a year and half later into the middle of 2021, hence, the album's title. Overall, the album is sonically infectious during a time of infection.
The first track, "As Above, So As Below," sets the listening experience. It begins with Sondheim on harmonica and Carter singing, "I'm taking a trip to heaven, to heaven I will go, I talk to God, and She did say, as above so as below…The world's a world without its end." In a sense, the album begins with an imaginary death but to a "heaven" that is different than one taught about in Sunday school.
Many of the tracks underscore the simplicity of this duo with Carter singing original lyrics and Sondheim on a variety of instruments that also include pithkiavlin, viola, guitar, and qifteli. These are alternated with instrumental tracks only in order to showcase Sondheim's multiple talents, especially with ancient string instruments, such as on track six’s "Guqin," which features lovely playing; or track eleven's "Musima" stressing his guitar inventiveness, and then the very lovely "Rababa" that uses what is considered one of the oldest string instruments in the world originating from Egypt.
Just past mid-way through the album, we have what feels like a climax, if one considers it as a continuous narrative of linked tracks. "Plague Hymn" on track 14 revives Sondheim on a rare Hohner Chordomonica harmonica, slower and lower pitched, and without Carter's lyrics; as if his partner has succumbed to the plague, to the pandemic. However, as if presenting the other side of the coin, it is followed by the track "Promised Land." Sondheim plays solo on the viola de Braga, yet it is pluckier and more upbeat, as if there is hope ahead. The speed of Sondheim’s strumming creates a sense of anticipation, as if I were running down the road and up the hill with him to see what’s ahead; hopefully to find Carter on the other side.
Carter returns on track 16 with "Pulse," simply reciting 93/79, 93/80, that is, blood pressure readouts. And then later in track 21, "Temperature," she again recites simply the bodily sign of "98.6." It is as though for most of the last half she is perhaps the untouched partner taking the pulse and temperature of Sondheim, who has perhaps been suffering, and that this album is a result of a "pandemic fever"?
However, by the end of the album on track 23 with "World," both are re-united. Carter sings her lovely complete phrases again and Sondheim plays an Irish banjo in such a way that you can detect a sense of tentativeness in his fingers. Carter sings, "What I have wanted to describe, what is indescribable, the tendency of my work…the idiocy of the real, when there is death…." She proceeds to describe the mundane details of a room, wondering if "the chair needs repainting?" Perhaps she is distracting herself from a chaos outside the door or, maybe, she indicates that she and Sondheim have come out the other end of their emotions during a pandemic.
Overall, the album's recording has the sensibility of Carter and Sondheim walking along the lonely roads of a pandemic-ridden world with his instruments and her notepad for lyrics; stopping on occasion at a vacated house to record Carter's expressive words and Sondheim's instrumental musings and improvisations; doing it for themselves, but taking the time to make a recording as well, in order to share with us that there is still human vitality in the world worth listening to.
Mr. Stallings is a writer, filmmaker, and curator living in Southern California. His most recent book-length collection of essays is Aridtopia: Essays on Art & Culture from Deserts in the Southwest United States. He also co-curated and co-edited Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the America. More information at www.tylerstallings.com