Lea Bertucci, “Of Shadow and Substance”
By Arielle Gordon · December 01, 2023 Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Sheet Music

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery rises above the Schuylkill River, its towering, rusted metal tubes looming over South Philadelphia. The refinery cast a long shadow on the city—built in 1866, the refinery opened and shuttered multiple times before it caught fire and exploded in 2019, ending with a bang after years of whimpers. Its towers still stand as an ominous monument to crumbling infrastructure, while the explosion’s more invisible after-effects—thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid released into the air upon combustion—continue leaking into the city.

In 2019, New York-based experimental composer and musician Lea Bertucci created the score for Superterranean, a play about the refinery and its relationship to the city, learning about the explosion in the process. Around the same time, Philadelphia’s avant-garde jazz collective Ars Nova Workshop approached her about composing a piece that was “uniquely Philadelphian.” The resulting work, titled “Of Shadow and Substance,” premiered in Philadelphia and Brooklyn last year and is now finally getting a physical release along with Bertucci’s semi-improvisational composition for the Italian string collective Quartetto Maruice, “Vapours” on her latest album, also titled Of Shadow and Substance.

Disquieting and serene, Of Shadows and Substance is a meditation on how industrial degradation reflects societal decay. Performed by Henry Fraser, Lester St. Louis, Lucia Stravros, and Matt Evans, it’s the first album in several years that does not include Bertucci playing an instrument herself, at least in the traditional sense. The titular piece opens with a fog of droning string instruments and rolling cymbal crashes, cellist Lester St. Louis and bassist Henry Fraser wringing feverish fury from frantic bow strokes while percussion builds. But Bertucci is not entirely absent from the live performance; she instead operates behind the scenes, working on electronics and tape manipulation.

In the past, Bertucci has explored the relationship between space and sound, playing off of the physical structure of Germany’s Deutzer suspension bridge on Acoustic Shadows and the cavernous space of Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works on All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Here, she’s playing with time, manipulating notes so that their echoes remain far longer than their initial signals. The warmest elements of the composition are, in fact, completely detached from their original source—Bertucci samples the musicians throughout the performance and reflects their sound back via quadraphonic speakers.  For the last moments of the piece, Bertucci’s tape loops resound alone in the empty space, a phantom of the performance that just occurred. Like the hydrofluoric acid that continues to flow from the long-shuttered refinery into the surrounding city of Philadelphia, Bertucci’s composition brilliantly continues to grow in the absence of a physical source, leaving traces unseen but potently felt.

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