Portugese composer and pianist Tiago Sousa (known initially from his netlabel Merzbau) makes it a point to play up the maturity and full realization of his new full-length on Chicago’s always-excellent Immune label. It doesn’t seem that his work was very immature before, but Walden Pond’s Monk instead seems to consciously strive to reach higher levels of sensitivity, contemplativeness, and subtlety. The album is inextricably linked to Sousa’s explorations of the life and ideas of Henry David Thoreau. Far from being a “tribute,” the album is simply influenced deeply by Thoreau’s ideas and mode of being—idealism, respect, solitude. This is manifested here mostly in the gentleness, pacing, and space, as these pieces unfold very gradually and organically.
A beginning observation would be that this music is very filmic—dark, reflective, reminiscent of Erik Satie at times, but somehow more free and intuitive. Sousa’s piano melodies weave in and out of the piece like inner thoughts flowing in a natural setting, and he mimics this beloved state remarkably well—some ideas fleeting, some latched onto and developed for however long, then discarded. Although there is a broader story at play in the piece as a whole, this seems moment-to-moment to be non-narrative, simply rolling from one section to the next.
From minimal beginnings, the four-part piece builds into an increasingly distressed narrative, as if prolonged reflection is breaking down (and then galvanizing?) the thinker. Sousa augments his warm, sparse piano with clarinet, chord-organ drones, and light percussion. This is all done quite sensitively, and the clarinet playing is especially impressive as it augments the piano and takes a moving solo. There are even some subtle textural vocal loops that sound like distant yelling in the third section. This latter choice is especially intriguing. Is the chatter meant to be internal or external?
This is a valid question to ask of Sousa here, and the answer is just as hazy as when asked of Thoreau himself. The myth of this man as a solitary, reflective, practical woodsman is a powerful one, but it’s not the whole picture. Thoreau went toward the woods, and also escaped from the town. Is Sousa tangling with deep musical questions in these explorations, or avoiding them? Certainly he seems to be looking for true emotion from the pieces. But they sometimes also seem unobtrusive, as if trying to stay out of the way. At times they even seem guarded, as if desperately hoping not to get noticed or swept up by the outside world. But Thoreau was deeply involved in the world, reading voraciously and espousing uncompromising views of abolitionism, self-determination, and even (to some) anarchy.
In this sense, Immune does well to describe Monk as a “romantic narrative”—it picks and chooses, and seems to proudly idealize Thoreau’s life. Sure, Walden Pond was barely a mile from Thoreau’s town, and he relied on society for supplies, employment, and socialization throughout his two years there. But he used the space that he did have to pursue inner development, and it seems clear that this inward journey is really resonates with Sousa.