A Basho haiku was the central prompt for Jacob Cooper’s new song cycle Silver Threads: “How delicately/ the silver threads of rain/ sew sky to the earth.” The Brooklyn-based composer asked several poets to respond to the haiku with their own poems, as well as to the work of the other poets and to Cooper’s preliminary musical sketches. The work that emerged out of this labor-intensive process deals with themes of love and isolation, and is set against a natural landscape distorted and sexualized by the psyches of the ambiguous protagonist(s): Representative lines include “Soft red lamina of horizon/ like the plush-tongued voice/ of the woman you once loved”; “the field feels/ the wind run/ its fingers through/ to shake/ the seeds/ to shake/ the seasons free”; and, most strikingly, “Does the sky/ or do you/ do it better (dirtier).”
Cooper’s laptop-only accompaniment is heavily informed by contemporary electronic music, and consists mostly of muted, pulsating chords. Cooper often reverses these samples or synth tones, creating clipped clicking noises which function as primary percussive elements in the piece, or employs isolated, massive bass drops for dramatic effect. Mezzo-soprano Melissa Hughes consistently sustains eerie, long tones without vibrato, and they ring out even longer thanks to Cooper’s liberally applied reverb. As in the composer’s previous collaboration with Hughes (the postmodern opera Timberbrit, a grand tragedy in one act starring a fictional Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake), the text is delivered slowly and deliberately, using only a handful of pitches within a given section.
Silver Threads is often beautiful — poignant and hypnotic even when it is not particularly daring. Cooper includes some unexpected, pleasantly jarring gestures, including the chopped, Burial-esque vocal samples that dance between Hughes’s phrases in “Wefted Histories” and the unabashedly tinny Casiotone textures on “Antique Windfall.” However, the album loses stream during the more static, languorously paced sections (see the 12-plus minutes of the penultimate track, “Unsung”). Words are often set apart from one another to the point of breaking any sense of sentence syntax, a technique which results in few conjunct melodic lines. Though obviously Cooper wasn’t intending to write catchy tunes, a bit of variation in the approach to Hughes’s vocals — whether in pacing or elocution — or a few more inspired, disruptive gestures in the electronic orchestra would have no doubt helped Silver Threads be a more consistently engaging listen.