Ravel in the Forest
The New Album from Belle Chen.
Liner notes by Claire Jackson
Notes fall like raindrops, quickening pace as the clouds gather. The piano melody splish sploshes into the electronic soundscape; the trees become denser, the journey more profound. Passages of Time, the opening track to pianist-composer Belle Chen's new album Ravel In The Forest, leads the listener through ancient woodland, quiet clearings and tropical canopies. We're accompanied by birds, a chameleon, a dragonfly – the wonder of the natural world is imbued into this imaginary space. For although Chen has taken inspiration from her own forays in the forest – beginning with a yellow carabeen tree in Queensland, Australia – her distinctive music is not intended to be a straight-forward representation. Taking cues from a breeze in the leaves, Chen fills her canvas with soft melodies and sympathetic synths.
Further inspiration comes from the French composer Maurice Ravel, whose name features in the album title. 'I love his ability to evoke colours,' says Chen, 'His writing for the piano is orchestral and very imaginative. The music has so many textural layers and earworms.' Adagio, Sans references the Adagio assai from Ravel's piano concerto; an excerpt that Chen grows through kaleidoscopic twists, becoming the seed for a new piece, Assai, Assai, with a life of its own. The four-note motif from Ravel’s La vallée des cloches (Miroirs) appears in And It Rains, a gently lilting ode to the refreshment of a tropical rainstorm, while Kingdom Animalia gives a nod to Assez vif from the string quartet, with intricate melodic development that erupts into rainbow sound, evoking a coming-together of forest inhabitants.
'Ravel' could also be read as 'ravel' – a hint at at the music's continual growth; a subtle development like the balling of wool. There is a counterpoint too – the unravelling – heard in the fast-paced The Dragonfly and My Deers. Here is a strong visual representation of the titular creatures moving through the forest: we follow, taking in the world from their point of view, propelled by the energetic backdrop.
While there is a definite hum of wings in The Dragonfly, the piece leaves room for the listener to find their own imagery – unlike Rimsky-Korsakov's iconic 1900 piece Flight of the Bumblebee, with its frenetic buzzing phrases, Chen shows rather than tells. 'These are snapshots rather than stories,' she says of the musical vignettes. 'Three Birds has three piano parts, but I've kept things impressionistic – there is space for the listener to fill in the narrative.' It's a departure from the composer's previous work with field recordings and adds to the ethereal aspect of the music.
The atmospheric style is enhanced by the use of a felt piano, which Chen plays throughout the album. The upright in her studio has additional material to 'dampen' the instrument's action, providing the gorgeously soft timbre. 'I wanted to get away from a traditional classical piano album where there is an emphasis on capturing an instrument immaculately and chose instead to lean towards a warmer sound that's more exposed; it's flawed and more human,' she explains. The occasional creaking pedal and key reminds Chen of 'the sound of branches cracking underfoot on the forest floor'. Every detail is honestly and beautifully presented in spatial audio via Platoon.
Adding felt to an upright piano – known as a type of 'prepared piano' – is a technique more commonly associated with the minimalistic, post-classical calm of Nils Frahm, but Ravel In The Forest incorporates the sound in active sections, too. Chen creates versatile effects by adding in electronic delays and whoops, moving between intimate reveries (Fleeting, Aromatic and Birthday) to the quasi-orchestral My Deers. The sonic landscape is thickened by the Budapest Art Orchestra strings, who bring lush luminescence to Moonrise and Closer. There is sweetness, perhaps a sting too, to this dramatic space.
'I had been living in London, detached from nature in my day-to-day life, and, on a return visit to Australia, I watched one particular tree over sunset in the depth of the tropical rainforest,' remembers Chen, who was born in Taiwan and spent her childhood in Australia and New Zealand. 'Out of nowhere, something triggered the birds, then the frogs, followed by other animals that I could hear but could not see – I stood there, immersed in the sound of nature's evening chorus. This was a really pivotal moment. It reminded me of my place within the ecosystem.'
It's a refresher we all need from time to time: Ravel In The Forest is there to help reconnect with nature, music – and ourselves.