“It can just do all these things,” said accordionist Patrick Farrell after a performance he gave with trumpet and flugelhorn player Ben Holmes.
Farrell was talking enthusiastically about the accordion and the many sonic possibilities of the instrument, but he might as well have been talking about the duo, which harnessed a dazzling array of colors, moods, and stylistic references across two wide-ranging sets at the Institute Library.
Holmes and Farrell appeared in New Haven Thursday night as part of a tour of a new work, The Conqueror Worm Suite, an extended piece of music broken into six pieces and accompanied by animation by graphic designer Natalie Sousa, projected onto a sheet hanging across a bookshelf. The back room of the library is a space that should have acoustic music happening much more often — the room, shallow, but with high ceilings, favored the unamplified duo, and allowed for the group to lock in dynamically throughout the set.
Of course, the skylight in the back room was not favorable for projections as long as there was daylight, and so the duo performed a short opening set of material from their previous releases. If their collaborative work on The Conqueror Worm was an alchemical concoction, the first set was the list of ingredients that seemed already primed to blend. Farrell and Holmes performed transcriptions by Farrell of two Shostakovich piano preludes, a wonderfully bright arrangement of The Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me,” and original material by both members that displayed a strong klezmer influence in the phrasing and a thorough embrace of jazz and early 20th-century classical harmony. The sequence of tunes in this set saw the duo displaying a kind of folk glossolalia, throwing in sudden shifts in language and nuance just before an origin language could be identified.
After a short break, it seemed dark enough to perform a piece that relied on projections, and the low, dying light during the piece only heightened the mood. It is easy to dismiss Edgar Allen Poe as purely macabre, but the time since his death has seen some of his wildest imaginings come much closer to the realm of possibility. The imagery in The Conqueror Worm, a poem of five stanzas, relies on the abstract logic of dreams, yet manages to convey profound anxiety on human mortality and the inevitability of death. Music and animations alike seized on this, adding a wide range of imagery and color to the text.
From the opening of the suite, “The Lonesome Latter Years,” a plaintive trumpet melody pierced the subdued chords of the accordion, opening up into a jazzy solo that escalated to a smoldering intensity. The animation at this point slowly alternated between close and long shots of an intricate line drawing being filled in a few lines at a time, instilling a sense of unease with the uncertainty of the imagery until the overall shape became established.
Part of the strength of the animation is that it often refracted certain key images within each stanza, rather than trying to immediately reflect the images line by line. Sousa’s animation showed a process as well as an immediate association, and the balance of both contributed significantly to the suite’s success. The third movement had a particularly compelling sequence, in which angelic figures were slowly covered by a creeping viscous liquid trickling up from the bottom of the frame. Accompanied by a halting, decadently harmonized tune, the movement was a standout among the performance as a whole.
Though Poe’s poem is a mere five stanzas, the language is dense enough to give Farrell and Holmes plenty to unpack over the course of around half an hour of uninterrupted music. The suite was organized neatly. Longer instrumental pieces featuring Holmes’ trumpet, flugelhorn and a variety of mutes, and Farrell’s shifting timbres — here orchestral, there like a distant dance band — were performed alongside minute-long pieces featuring recitation by Holmes and short interludes by Farrell solo, which functioned as a suite-within-the-suite. Farrell and Holmes built the music around some strong melodic motifs that resurfaced in different ways throughout the piece, and the occasional moments of recognition added to the dreamlike logic of the piece in performance. Equally memorable were certain visual motifs throughout the sequence of animation — a series of dancers reflected in the iris of a wall of eyes, alongside abstract movements that resonated just as strongly.
In the opening set and the Conqueror Worm Suite Holmes and Farrell always left each other plenty of space, but never avoided urgency and density when necessary. Their sensitivity did a lot to explain why the duo worked so well together. In the space they created for the words and animation, they allowed each element in turn to cement the macabre and beautiful imagery.