The Awakening Orchestra, led by composer Kyle Saulnier, is a large ensemble (roughly two dozen players) that works on a broad canvas. Their new digital-only album, Volume II: To Call Her to a Higher Plain, which is available from the Biophilia label, runs just shy of two hours and includes two complete symphonies, as well as interpretations of tunes by Bill Frisell, Molly Drake (folk singer Nick Drake‘s mother), and Nine Inch Nails, as well as a choral piece by Eric Whitaker that’s been rearranged as a brass chorale.
The music is basically modern big band with a cinematic flair, and will likely remind many listeners of the work of contemporary ensembles like Darcy James Argue‘s Secret Society, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the Michael Leonhart Orchestra, Miho Hazama‘s m_unit, but there are tinges of 1970s movie scores by Lalo Schifrin and Dave Grusin here, too.
The ensemble’s version of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Burn” (from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack) is terrific. In some ways, it resembles the recreations of electronic pieces using acoustic instruments that Zeitkratzer and Alarm Will Sound have recorded, but there’s much more going on here than that. The use of trilling flutes and reeds, and the eventual trumpet and trombone fanfares, give the whole thing the epic sweep and grandeur of the David Shire theme to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and Nathan Hetherington‘s vocal is a good middle ground between jazzy theatricality and the sputtering rage of Trent Reznor.
The title piece could be an album by itself. Stretching across three movements, with two short cadenzas serving as bridges, it’s just under 34 minutes long. It takes its title from former US Senator and failed 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, who wrote, “The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plain.” It begins somberly, with low brass and soaring but jagged violin (from Brooke Quiggins Saulnier, the composer’s wife). Soprano saxophonist Samuel Ryder also gets solo space in the first movement, “On the Technicians of Power”; his biting phrases and high-pitched long tones, combining emotional flourishes with an innate desire to withdraw immediately afterward, are reminiscent of the latter-day work of Wayne Shorter on albums like Without a Net and Emanon. The full ensemble surges behind the spotlight players, a massive, martial backbeat adding force.
This is mournful but expansive music, deeply romantic and as indebted to lush ’70s soul at times as to modern composition. John Yao‘s trombone solo in the second movement of the title suite, “On the Acceptance of Things That We Can Not Change,” comes in the middle of a piece that’s as grandiose as any Gamble & Huff production, even with the violin piercing through like a jabbing needle. The balance of monochromatic starkness, during the Balkan violin passages, and the larger-than-life explosions of color from the full ensemble, make it a uniquely dynamic experience. Take the full two-hour ride; you’ll be glad you did.