With the arrival of a new year comes the familiar wishes of happiness and joy, along with the embrace of ideas like renewal and redemption, often taking the form of the popular New Year’s resolution. If ever there was a year that humanity as a collective group would delight in the entirety of these mindsets, with the hope that each comes to pass in a positive and comforting way, it would be 2022. And yet, much doubt, frustration, and a general sense of sameness pervades day-to-day life, even knowing the improved context of the world in a pandemic now, verses even one year prior to today. People are still free to pursue and bask in the promise and positive potential of the new year but there’s equal merit in acknowledging the immediate present and its enduring sense of seriousness and somber frustration.
Surreal Circus, by composer and pianist Raluca Apetria, seems intent to tap into this mental and emotional duality of the new year. Bearing melodic, tonal, rhythmic, and dynamic qualities that resonate both the relieving and sobering sentiments that remain floating about the world’s consciousness, the five track EP doesn’t waste a single ounce of its creative space in pursuit of presenting its contemplative musical vision. Right from the title – which instills an immediate sense of fluidity and the unexpected, as both words connect with the idea of the fantastical and of things that spark the imagination and inspire surprise or mystery – Surreal Circus plunges listeners straight into the center of the duality with “Initiation Wells.”
Beyond the vision of a well – something dark and of unknown depth – which is again spurred on the title’s introduction, the opening motif of the track cycles through repeated arpeggiations of a minor third and augmented fourth. The tempo is relatively relaxed and the dynamics gentle, easing the music in but the notes themselves deliver pointed unease with the recurring puncture of that tritone interval. While the chords in Apetria’s left hand that begin to fill out the melody, provide more uplifting moments of major key solidity, the shift in emotional weight maintains a feeling of precariousness, even as the opening tritone motif falls to the background under the intensity of all the other chords.
As the EP continues, Apertria finds varying but equally imaginative ways to uphold this theme of contrast with Surreal Circus. “The Gipsy Dancer” injects more direct energy into the music, with a more sprightly tempo and a pivot to a waltzing 3/4 as the Gipsy’s dancing meter. Set against this framework is a touch of jazz-like swing in Apertria’s play style and when combined with her orbiting again around more of a minor tonality, the piece restrains from fully heartedly embracing a joyful demonstration of dance. Instead, the music takes on a distinctly cooler hue, thanks to the music’s foundational repetition now residing in the piano’s lower octaves and blending with an upper melody that offers occasional minor 2nd chords, creating flashes of dissonance.
Though the EP rests wholly on Apertria’s shoulders and under her hands on the piano, the solo instrumental pillar of this release doesn’t cave under its own singularity. When it seems as though dissimilar melodies, tempos, and rhythms might hit their ceilings of imaginative potential without any other sonic support, “Late Night Talks with Mr. Octopus” brings the EP to its surreal peak, (or perhaps its depth?). Transitioning the EP from shorter pieces with more seemingly self-explanatory themes, this piece runs longer than five minutes and beckons more from the listener: More patience, more concentration, and indeed more imagination. The music doesn’t rely on an initial framework of cycles or subtle repetition to build upon and its far more unpredictable nature quite understandably, strives to leave listeners on their toes. The only sense of direction listeners are given is the title imagery and beyond that, the frenetic movement of the melody gives the piece much more sentient character. There are glimpses of impressionistic melodic style, with some passages evoking the aesthetic of a composer Debussy, who was also a fan of establishing an image through a title and building around it. Contemplating from a more modern perspective, there’s a sense that this, as well as the rest of the EP’s pieces could fit seamlessly into the world of Disney’s Fantasia and Fantastia 2000.
Collectively, Surreal Circus delivers its proposed identity from all offered angles: titularly, melodically, narratively, visually and, most importantly, compositionally. Apetria’s compositional style walks a fine line between sounding new and fresh, while also giving clear signs of appreciation for traditional, familiar forms of piano writing and concept evocation. Rather than seeing the record as a piece of work that runs contrary to the traditional mood of this time of year, it should be applauded for its melodic honesty. Add to this, the EP’s whimsical undercurrent – one that isn’t afraid to pursue both the fun and darker sides of imagination – and Surreal Circus provides just the kind of flexibility that’s fitting for the opening fragility of 2022.
Surreal Circus is available now.
Find it on Bandcamp.