"The three instruments sound … like a new instrument dreamed up in a snowy village in the foothills of the Himalayas."
Elements: Gwyneth Wentink, harp; George Brooks, saxophone; Kala Ramnath, violin and vocals. Earth Brother Music, 2018.
What at a thrill to come across the contemporary ensemble Elements’ newest release The Alchemy. With its quirky ensemble of American saxophonist and composer, George Brooks; North Indian violinist and vocalist, Kala Ramnath; and Dutch harp virtuoso, Gwyneth Wentink, this is adventurous music inspired by Indian ragas and our own Western heritage with an emphasis on minimalism. But it is accessible and grounded in the familiar, even while you feel your feet treading on the soil of distant lands.
The title comes from the alchemy of the artists’ individual styles melting together in this extraordinary album, Western and Indian classical, along with jazz. There’s also an element of the magic when three disparate instruments come together, plucked, bowed, and blown.
This grabs the listener at the start in To the Light, with all three playing a complex ultra-fast figure. No individual is at first distinguished, it is just a blaze of sound, until they break apart into their individual colors of the prism, Kala’s violin slip-sliding and bending her melody into microtonal magic. When George joins in, there’s an element of back-beat swing. Gwyneth hypnotizes with repeated figures tying it all together in a mesmerizing whirl.
Karuna gives us a chance to sit back and see what this ensemble is made of. In all performances, Elements plays without music. This is because the tradition is aural rather than written. In north India, it’s improvisation based on a raga—or mode—and a rhythmic cycle. Gwyneth’s harp provides most of the structure for the music, and that’s why what you hear is so immediate and in the now, because it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s just jamming on a theme; there’s a sense that they all have skin in the game, even if it’s the harp with her ability to play chords and create harmonic underpinning. She too plays with a keen sense of presence and a performance-quality that is rare indeed in recorded music.
“Traveling Music for Ann” is the best example of this. Gwyneth sets a complex pattern that changes ever so slightly over time, but is grounding for the saxophone and Ramnath’s haunting, yet ultimately soothing vocals.
One of the most charged pieces on the disc is the grooving Lemon Pickle with the added tambourine-like drum of kanjira, superbly played by Selvaganesh Vinayakram. It’s here that the three instruments sound least like harp, violin, and sax but more like a new instrument dreamed up in a snowy village in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The album title is derived from a name of a book called The Alchemy of Happiness by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a musician and teacher who introduced Sufism and Indian classical music to the West. He speaks to transformation, and on this, Elements hits on the emotional and spiritual level of the material. This is most evident in the titular work for solo harp, played with a sparkly reverence, like a master healer so light with the world, she’s willing to carry our load too. •