Featuring three clarinet virtuosos and a lone singer, the quartet known as Pneuma is aptly named. In ancient Greek, the word means “breath” or “wind”, but there are also mystical and medical connotations: pneuma is the breath of life, or the link between the heart and the brain.
This makes sense when listening to Who Has Seen the Wind?, released earlier this year on Vancouver’s own Songlines imprint. Pneuma’s debut is somehow both provocative and lulling, and although its winds can sometimes blow with chilling force, at its core lies a warm and pulsing heart. There’s also a family connection here: vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s beloved grandfather, Harry, was an amateur musician who handed down his fondness for the clarinet—and his prized Benny Goodman LPs—to all of his various descendants.
“I think it’s such a rich instrument,” says Gottlieb, a former Vancouver resident now living in Montreal. “It’s not used that frequently in improvised music, but to me it’s a sound that I love. And it just so happened at a certain point that I knew so many incredible clarinetists, and I just had the idea of doing something with a bunch of them.
“Three is a good number,” she adds, laughing. “If you have two, then it’s hard to really create backgrounds, and if we had four clarinets, then that’s kind of a big group. So three is nice, because you can have harmony if you want it, and you can still have somebody holding a rhythmic pattern. You know, you can have diversity. It’s kind of a nice construct.”
In Pneuma, Gottlieb has chosen to work with Seattle’s James Falzone and another former Vancouverite, François Houle. They’re somewhat similar in approach, being equally at home with classical and contemporary styles, while the third horn player, Montreal-based Michael Winograd, adds the folk element through his deep knowledge of klezmer and Jewish liturgical music.
“You really can hear the yiddishkeit come through there,” says the Jerusalem-born Gottlieb. “Michael doesn’t really go into klezmerish sounds, compositionally—I actually did that more—but in his compositions he just went very deep into a melodic sense, a beautiful melodic sense. His compositions are really very approachable, I find.”
The texts Pneuma has chosen to work with are equally compelling, especially the ancient Japanese verses that inspired Falzone’s four short meditations, “Wakened by the Scent”, “Who Can Say What Loneliness Is”, “Ruined House”, and “The Pine Tree”.
“Those pieces are really extremely personal,” Gottlieb says of those works, by ninth- and 10th-century poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. “You read those texts and they could have been written today. They’re about really vulnerable human experiences—and one of the things that I cherish about this project is how vulnerable we all have to be for it to work. The music is so bare that it can be a scary experience, but we all trust each other so much that it’s also a really charged experience. You have no option other than to be fully present.”
Pneuma and Cat Toren play a Western Front double bill on Friday (November 8).