Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra‘s rapturous, starkly orchestrated new album Walking on Water touches on the two most deadly ecological crises of our time: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and global warming. Inspired by a breathtaking series of paintings by Mako Fujimura dedicated to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear explosions, Ibarra also addresses a familiar theme in her work, the perils of climate change. With the Japanese government threatening to dump millions of gallons of lethal radioactive water from the still-unstable Fukushima site into the Pacific, Ibarra could not have picked a more appropriate time to release this record of what she terms as “spirituals” at Bandcamp.
Ibarra’s DreamTime Ensemble here includes Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharambaj on cello, Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jake Landau on guitar and keys, with Yuka C. Honda adding electronic elements. The music is much more dynamic than you would expect from such troubling central themes and includes many field recordings of water, from melting ice in the Himalayas to water tanks in Washington State.
The first track is Elegy in Azurite, a shimmery, circling theme, part terse, lush classical atmosphere aloft with Acuna’s vocalese, and part pointillistic Filipino kulintang music. Landau’s spiky acoustic guitar pierces the mist in the bouncy Light East of Sendai. His organ falls away, leaving Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs to mingle with melting ice sonics in Waterfalling.
Assertive, flamenco-tinged guitar chords anchor resonant, shivering phrases from violin and cello over Ibarra’s rustles in Coastal Birds The next track is High Wave, a mashup of found sounds of water amid nebulous acoustic and electronic ambience. Acuna sails soulfully above a syncopated organ groove and Ibarra’s slinky drums in the aptly titled Natural Lightness.
Night Rain sounds like exactly that, a field recording with birds chattering away as they take cover. Violin and cello rise warily over Landau’s lush arpeggios in Divine Forgiveness, followed by a fluttery tone poem, Celestial Migration. Floating Azurite makes a good segue, somber atmosphere contrasting with the mandolin-like delicacy of Landau’s guitars.
The bossa-tinged swing of New York With Grace comes as a real surprise, Landau’s spiny textures and the strings adding a surreal, disquieted edge. The album’s big epic is aptly titled Listening at Himalayan Waterfalls, a found-sound pastiche which Ibarra captured with underwater microphones. The group close with Floating Along Banares, a summery field recording of a boat trip mashed up with distantly Indian-flavored melodies. The implication seems to be that this kind of natural camaraderie is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what we stand to lose if we don’t stop burning things to power the world. The apocalypse never sounded so dreamy. Count this as one of the best and most captivating albums of 2021.