Kit Wilmans Fegradoe:
Considering that it's the debut album by a composer who's a mere twenty-three years old, Issa impresses as a preternaturally poised and mature work by Bristol-based Kit Wilmans Fegradoe. The concept for the modern classical work is also striking, revolving as it does around the unknown years of Jesus Christ (Issa in the East) and his journeys into India and studies with Buddhists and Hindus.
Fegradoe has provided helpful background detail (general as well as track-by-track) to lend the project clarity. Traveling nomadically, Issa apparently left home at thirteen to explore different cultures, religions, and philosophies, and share the insights he acquired with others. Let's be clear: Fegradoe isn't an acolyte intent on converting anyone to Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion; he's a composer who through this particular creative work hopes listeners might be able to acquire some vicarious impression of what Issa experienced during his journeys. The fifty-three minutes of material grew out of guided, studio-based improvisation sessions with musicians, which produced recordings that Fegradoe subsequently developed into compositional form. Whilst working on the material, the composer visited churches and Buddhist temples, absorbed Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and experimented with Eastern instruments.
In “The Silk Road,” which sees Issa setting out on his easterly journey in the company of merchants, the album's Eastern character is immediately established by the instrumentation: hand drums, hand claps, and a hammered dulcimer-like instrument whose sparkling thrum propels the music at a breathless clip. During the opening minutes of its twelve-minute run, “Shruti” perpetuates the rapid, strings-driven design of the opening piece, though now supplemented with subtle waves of woodwind textures, until the rhythmic details fall away and a swelling synthesizer drone takes over. In the stirring “Mary,” the wordless supplications of hushed female voices stand for a song Issa's mother once sang to him as a child, which he recalls fondly whilst falling asleep on a peaceful night. The album's longest setting, the eighteen-minute “Nibbana” advances through a number of hypnotic episodes, each one evolving naturally out of the one before. After opening with an ear-catching array of woodwinds, the material settles into a meditative section, the elements merging into a dense droning mass out of which individual instruments and soft vocal exhalations periodically emerge.Those interested in doing so likely will be able to detect the influence of other composers in Fegradoe's composition. Yet while traces of Arvo Part, Steve Reich, and Gavin Bryars might be present, in certain respects Issa has more in common with a prototypical work by John Tavener than one by any other. In the arrangements of the album's six settings, Fegradoe shares with the late English composer an affinity for austerity, and the recording is all the more effective for presenting its lyrical meditations in such ascetic manner. Nowhere does that Tavener connection come into play more conspicuously than during “Annica,” whose singing bowls call to mind similar percussive treatments in Tavener's works (Mary of Egypt, for instance). Another thing that makes the recording special is that each of the six pieces features different instrumentation, though not so radically different that they feel unrelated. Yes, Issa is austere, but in its own understated way it's also mesmerizing.