Washington state native Jessika Kenney has the most important quality needed for a westerner exploring musics from far-flung cultures that are intrinsically different to the one she was born into: she has a knack for homing in on the emotional core of each song she explores. Of course, it helps that she is something of an expert in Indonesian and Persian music, although she admits to making “errors and delusions” on this album. If you can spot them, I’d love to know what they could possibly be, as all of Atria sounds exquisite from where I’m seated, pretending to my other half that I’m managing our bills. But, equally, her voice is so resonant and majestic that, even in a foreign language she is able to conjure up such a storm of feeling that it is impossible to question this music’s authenticity. It’s one of those voices, and one of those spirits, that make you forget that she even has backing performers (including her partner, violist Eyvind Kang, and a series of gamelan players), such is the way she unselfconsciously takes center stage and brings the music close to her own soul.
Atria is intriguing and beguiling on so many levels, Kenney’s voice being just its prime attraction. As mentioned, the music is essentially gamelan, albeit played at a pace I have rarely heard. These songs evolve gradually, often with minimal percussive thrust, with bells and bowls resonated until they produce echo-y drones that interlace with Kang’s measured viola lines and Kenney’s extended vocalizations. Any effects of note are on her singing, as her crystalline wordings are extended or superimposed to create a shimmering choir, most effectively on the album’s centerpiece, the 11-minute “Sarira Tunggal” and its follow-up “Pamor.” These are intricate compositions, with several angles and facets to them, much as the Roman edifices that (sort of) give the album its title would have had. On the busier “Wiji Sawiji Mulane Dadi,” field recordings of birds and bubbling streams combine with flute to evoke a pastoral atmosphere that fans of Indonesian music will be familiar with, but also anyone with a taste for English folk (the flute features heavily on albums by Comus and Mr. Fox) or traditional Indian music.
This poise, restraint and precision in both composition and delivery dominates Atria, but never over-dominates it. Indeed, opener “Her Sword I” is almost groovy in a spiritual sort of way, with gentle patters on hand drums and a gorgeous central melody that is infectious without being intrusive, once again leaving ample room for Kenney’s voice to positively soar outwards. Whether deep or stretching into higher registers, her singing is never short of note-perfect, something demonstrated most expertly on the winding lines of “Sarira Tunggal” and the two versions of “Her Sword” that bookend the album, the second more minimalist and sparser than the opener, and therefore all the more dominated by the vocals.
As far as I can gather, Kenney sings entirely in Farsi, but this is largely immaterial beyond marveling at how immersed in the language and ancient musical traditions of Persia she is. Even in less-than-mystical English, Kenney would sound as exquisite as she does here and, for all the quality of the music and instrumental performances on Atria, it’s greatest achievement is how it elevates Jessika Kenney into the ranks of the world’s premier vocalists.