The British novelist, philosopher, and poet Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker concerns itself with nothing less than the history of life in the universe. It’s a lot to cover in a little over three hundred pages, much less an hour-long CD, which is why the Edmonton-born composer Taylor Brook keeps his treatment for chamber ensemble and soprano-narrator to fragments.
As storytelling, Star Maker Fragments comes in glances and blows, imaginative descriptions of alien life forms in an ambiguous first person. The nonlinear narrative works with Brook’s imaginative score for flute, bass clarinet, violin, and percussion, wonderfully played by New York City’s TAK Ensemble, with Brook’s own electronics filling the alien sound bed. Toronto-born Charlotte Mundy delivers the vignettes in clear, measured tones with a wonderful way of fading into upper register and into the instrumental mix between chapters.
Stapledon’s novel was a follow-up to his 1930 novel Last and First Men, which served as inspiration for the final work by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, a multimedia film-and-orchestra work narrated by Tilda Swinton. Star Maker Fragments shares certain qualities with Jóhannsson’s work. They’re both appropriately atmospheric but with strong tonal centres providing a grounding thread. And both Brook and Jóhannsson, like Stapledon himself, are willing and able to take on massive subjects with abstract yet approachable—even enjoyable—results.