Growing up between Paris and Montréal, Alexandra Stréliski is a classically-trained Canadian pianist and composer whose music was heard in two recent Jean Marc Vallée films – Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Demolition (2015). HBO subscribers will be familiar with Alexandra Stréliski’s music as some of her compositions – and her version of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor – have featured on the Sharp Objects (2018) and Big Little Lies (2017-2019) miniseries, both directed by Jean Marc Vallée too. Careful listeners will also have recognised her track “Plus Tôt” playing on the Center Parks UK TV ads over the last few months. Following on from her self-produced Pianoscope solo début in 2010, Inscape is the pianist remarkable sophomore album, released on Secret City Records on 5 October 2018 last.
Inscape: the unique inner quality of the self, as portrayed in a piece of art.
Adorning the cover of the album is a lone astronaut in a vacuum whose visor reflects a landscape that doesn’t mirror his (or her) immediate surroundings. Instead, the reflection seems to come from within. “Are you part of the universe, or is the universe part of you?” asks a voice-over in the “Plus Tôt” YouTube clip. This spiritual questioning forms the basis of all the stunning piano-based compositions on Inscape. The record title itself is a portmanteau word expressing an “interior landscape” or perhaps an “escape from within”. The term was originally coined by English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in an attempt to express individuality and uniqueness in things and beings.
Beautifully illustrated by Elisabeth Gravel, every song on Inscape is accompanied by a series of abstract landscape paintings, each evoking a different state of mind. All the pictures are connected. When reconstructed and assembled into a mosaic, they form a much wider new landscape, reflecting the inner complexities of the self, with all its hidden emotions, fantasies and imaginary worlds. Like on many 19th century American landscape paintings depicting a newly discovered and awe inspiring wilderness, a tiny human silhouette stands on the edge for scale – the musician as an adventurous astronaut staring at life’s (metaphorical) “peaks and valleys”?
I found myself in a space filled with grey areas that I didn’t know how to escape. It was a crucial turning point for me. A year of creative evolution during which I reconnected with my deep nature, my essence, my X.
The music on Inscape finds its origin in an emotionally stressful year in the musician’s personal life whereby the pianist changed jobs, became separated and went through a depression. From “Plus Tôt” (earlier) illustrated with Super 8 footage to “Le Nouveau Départ” (the new departure) via “Burnout Fugue” and eight other moments, each composition seems to chronicle a particular period or emotional state in the pianist’s tumultuous journey. All track introductions are very short and the pianist sustains the same melodic urgency throughout the album.
Closely placed microphones capture all the action, hammer and pedal sounds from the piano on almost every track to offer the listener a true immersive experience. Is the clickety-clack of the piano keys also a deliberate attempt to mirror all of life’s small imperfections laid bare here by the pianist – warts and all? Paradoxically, only the superbly upbeat “Burnout Fugue” has a “clean” classical grand piano sound when its title would normally suggest weariness and breakdown.
“Interlude” is the only piece on the album featuring ebbing and flowing electronic layers in the background. On slower numbers like “Ellipse” or “Blind Vision”, the natural reverberation almost emulates a hammered string instrument.
Following a clear narrative arc, Inscape is a magnificent collection radiating with passion and spirit by a perceptive musician in a vulnerable space – in front of a piano.
All compositions are also available as sheet music from the musician’s website.