This collection of solo harmonica pieces from LA-based composer and performer Laura Steenberge are as tough and delicate as cobwebs woven in steel. Bringing a harmonica into play usually results in wheezy, post Dylan huffs or bluesy 12-bar wails, but Steenberge’s beautiful constructions veer well away from all that. She even cocks a snook at the breathy reductionism explored by Radu Malfatti and the like, choosing instead to mould subtle song forms whose component molecules retain only the merest hints of melody and structure, but which are enough to entrance anyone who hears them.
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Steenberge’s handling of her material is so deft. She’s been working with songs since at least 2012 – often using contrabass, viol de gamba and voice in various combinations – balancing those explorations with more abstract sound art and installation works. And while she probably won’t be flogging a megahit to Ed Sheeran any time soon, the subtlety and restraint of her pieces is impossible to argue with.
‘Harmonica Fables’ gives us seven such gems, plus a pair of more abstract pieces at the start that act as overtures, of a sort, for what’s to come. These two cuts inhabit familiar art-minimal-compositional territory, their long exhalations given unexpected presence by the harmonica’s distinctive tone, with added textural interest from Steenberge’s vocal additions and groaning, overtone chomps. Nice stuff, but it’s with the three parts of ‘Spheres’ that things really get going. These are hazy and glittering, like the after-echo of a long-lost computer music demo that somehow hangs around permanently in the ionosphere, its burnished whines exerting mesmeric effect. You couldn’t get a better demonstration of the principle of less is more, really. They’re as addictive as they are incorporeal.
In comparison, Steenberge’s final quartet feel positively baroque in their sonic adornment, yet their folky twists and turns – most apparent in the flighty arpeggios of ‘Pan and Apollo’ – are an uncanny delight. In this context, naming a track after a dude who falls asleep for a hundred years seems particularly fitting, thus the dreamy, eerie ‘Rip Van Winkle’ is an effortless, hypnotic summation of Steenberge’s methodology, bringing ‘Harmonica Fables’ to a satisfyingly swoony close. Life is but a dream. Don’t wake me up before you go-go.