The thin, luminous sound of the shô, a Japanese mouth organ, is very particular and very beautiful—presenting a pleasant and impossibly clear glassy tonal surface. Sarah Peebles’ new shô-centred disc Delicate Paths demonstrates a thorough, painterly understanding of this instrument’s saturated astringency in solo, small ensemble, and electroacoustic contexts.
There’s a contemplative austerity to the solo pieces on this album, but they never come off as dour or aloof. In fact these solo works—a set of pieces in the Resinous Fold series—actively invite the listener in, and the close-miked production aesthetic affirms this with both stark clarity and intimate proximity. The ear doesn’t need to follow melodic or harmonic shapes over their slow unfoldings, despite the instrument’s clarity of pitch. Instead, the listener encounters a series of concentrated timbral formations that shimmer and fluctuate ever so slightly. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing, but with an edge of peculiar muted relentlessness.
The title work (a set of three separate pieces) situates Peebles in group improvisational settings. Evan Parker and Nilan Perera are her guests on the first two of the set. Perera’s bass-rich prepared-guitar timbre opens up a certain depth of field, variously offering dimly glowing tones, drum-like punctuations, trickling chimes, and many other carefully crafted environments. Parker’s trademark sax gestures—detailed strobing figurations—dance across the foreground, recede, and merge with the sounds of his two partners. Peebles’ sound, on the other hand, radiates from within the ensemble, framing and bolstering the other activity with meditative resolve. Her duet with vocalist Suba Sankaran in the third Delicate Paths piece provides an unexpected plot twist, with Sankaran’s raga-based melodies delivered atop a swelling mass of bright tone. Sankaran’s warm-hued and agile voice is remarkably compatible with Peebles’ crystalline free-reed resonances.
In the Canopy provides further contrast, situating the shô amidst a diffuse electroacoustic soundscape consisting of treated field recordings. The bright filamental quality of shô casts gentle illumination on the dark whir of treated natural sound, while also delightfully casting doubt on its own sonic origin—effortlessly camouflaging itself among its more electronic surroundings.
The final cut, the last of the Resinous Fold pieces, expands the approach of its predecessors through multitrack layering, which only serves to amplify the instrument's natural capacity to create striking blends of colour. Delicate Paths is a very eclectic collection, presenting myriad ideas, but also—and more crucially—a unique and acute sense of poise, focus, and patience.