Frances Miller & Jesse Stoltzfus / River of Tears
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I don’t know if Frances Miller and Jesse Stoltzfus are an active couple (and my deepest apologies to their respective significant others if they are not), but these two make beautiful music together. With their violins, I mean. Frances composed the original music on River Of Tears to support two plays, one about Bloody Sunday in Ireland and the other about the war in the Balkans, “both about the atrocities of violence, human suffering, both about survival, hope and the tenacity of the human spirit.”
The first four tracks are about Bloody Sunday. “Mist/Tell the Truth,” finds two violins weaving sad, Celtic melodies around each other, leading into “The Wheel Turns/Flicker,” a solo violin piece that reflects hints of Stravinsky. “Dew Drop/Inconsolable” is haunting, almost like a vivid dream of a reuniting with a lost loved one. The major theme from the first track is restated in the urgent call to action of “Building Pyramids/Rise, The Living,” albeit in a major key and with great vigor.
The Balkan War pieces open with the faint ringing of a clay bell before the violins enter, wailing over the futility of war before falling into a somber, almost eerily soothing exhaustion. “Flight” is an agitated piece with more modern touches, this time from Shostakovich or Crumb, while “Oasis” is a brief ray of sunshine with a spritely, quick melody. But soon “Remember” takes over with a heavy-hearted reminiscing as the violins again entwine, this time in sad, slow grief. The traditional “Song to Allah” is augmented by rain stick as the violins join together, communing in reverent prayer as they reach for the heavens. “Returning Home” contains a simple, yet engaging melody that continues to circle around to its beginning. Before long, contemplative notes grow to an intense resolution.
“Didgeridoo Meets Violin: 1st Encounter” is what it sounds like – a didgeridoo with Frances improvising on the violin. True to the rest of the compositions, this track is packed with a raw emotional power that belies none of its improvisational origin.
As the entire album runs just under 30 minutes, I’ve been able to listen to this collection numerous times, and I’m confident in saying that all who hear River of Tears will be captured by the gorgeous melodies and outstanding musicianship. Everything from the composition to the performance to recording has been done with impeccable attention to detail, leaving an amazing, yet brief, testimony of hope against the dire ruins of war.