Although I haven’t met award-winning composer/pianist/vocalist Fiona Joy Hawkins in person, she feels like an old friend, with this being the fourth album of hers that I’ve had the pleasure to write about. The previous recordings include Sensual Journeys, Blue Dream, and Christmas Joy. With the press release for her latest album, 600 Years In A Moment, heralding it as “her most epic and significant album,” I was of course very much looking forward to it. And after hearing it in detail, I have to say that it definitely lives up to that lofty accolade.
Listening to a recording is somewhat akin to enjoying (hopefully) the fruits of the composer’s musical tree. In addition to focusing on the fruits, I sometimes find it fascinating to explore the seed from which the tree grew. In the case of Fiona’s new album, it has had an interesting genesis. It seems that the inspiration for this work evolved from a discussion she had about globalization. Fiona goes on to explain: “I have often wondered how globalisation affects music and how history changes our perception of instruments and the musical culture of our ancestors.” This sparked my curiosity and I felt compelled to ask her to expound on it. Here is her reply: “It inspired me to think about this in a musical sense and how the whole issue of cultures disappearing and the world becoming one big melting pot of genetics and cultures that are replaced by something more generic that represents the world as its becoming today. So after some thought I believe that our musical past is safe and sound and still vibrant. The instruments and ‘sounds’ that define each culture are still well defined and although music has its own evolution and there are always modern elements, we seem to allow history to co-exist with our modern approach because we still celebrate the various musical periods in history and the instruments of the time. I think we get a little caught up with past composers and forget to celebrate new music – I find it interesting that this has always been so, and even the composers of the past had this problem.”
I also had to ask her about the unusual title for the album, to which she replied: “600 Years in a Moment came about as the perfect title when a friend’s life was resolved in an instant after 6 years of searching. I expanded that to 600 Years (although some of my instruments are much older). She gave me the idea that things can come together in an instant as her past problems had resolved and her present and future were determined by one small moment (that I was part of).” 600 Years in a Moment was recorded using a unique contemporary piano crafted in Australia along with ancient instruments from around the world. Fiona’s concept is to bring instruments and their distinctive sounds from villages across the globe to explore the hidden musical treasures of cultures in a modern musical setting. The album is eclectic, acoustic, beautifully produced, and spans genres with influences of new age, jazz, classical, and world music. It explores time and history, bringing the past to the present, joining old with new and finding origins while looking into the future. 600 Years in a Moment is a journey from Fiona’s native Australia that travels sonically around the world with the distinctly Celtic flavour of her ancestors while combining sounds from other ancient cultures. In addition to piano, Fiona also adds vocals on the album and has often been told that she sounds like an “Australian Enya.”
“The end is the beginning…” These spoken words open the album as the title track unfolds. In a soft voice Fiona continues: “Far from the shore, the winds will whisper, 600 years and I’ll be home…” From this enigmatic entrance, the journey begins, as her haunting piano melody sets the stage with a spacious and cinematic air as strings provide subtle accompaniment. An Irish whistle adds a Celtic flavor to the mix while sparse vocals by Heather Rankin in Gaelic and English drift in and out as if in a dream. I particularly liked the interplay between the vocals and the accompanying instruments, which often come in seamlessly at the end of a phrase on the same note. A track entitled “Naked Love,” opens with a motif that bears a slight resemblance to the jazz piano classic “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck, although with a slower tempo and different vibe, before morphing into other movements. A variety of Asian instruments and Mongolian throat singing bring an international flavor to the track. In fact, as I read the liner notes I was amazed at the huge variety of exotic musical instruments from around the world, which appear throughout the album. Equally impressive is the list of accompanying musicians, which include Eugene Friesen (Paul Winter Consort) on cello, bassist Tony Levin (Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel), Jeff Haynes (Pat Metheney) on drums and percussion, violinist Charlie Bisharat (Yanni), violinist/vocalist Rebecca Daniel (Australian Chamber Orchestra), guitarists Will Ackerman and Todd Boston, and many others. Grammy winners Will Ackerman and Corin Nelsen also shared producer’s credits with Fiona. Truly an all-star cast.
While just about all the songs feature diverse collections of instruments and musicians, the album does include a lovely and sensitive piano solo by Fiona entitled “Earthbound.” The sweetly introspective mood continues on “Gliding,” which opens with a piano intro leading into ensemble interplay. Reading the list of accompanists and instruments on the various songs, it might seem like the tracks could be rather busy, but everything is expertly mixed with just the right amount of subtlety to allow Fiona’s graceful piano to shine, while still providing melodic and textural support. A touch of her Australian homeland is heard in “Running On Joy,” as a didgeridoo adds its earthy ambience to this lighthearted tune. A very different part of the globe is referenced on a track called “Antarctica,” which sparkles with glacial beauty. As I neared the end of the album on an interestingly titled piece called “Captured Freedom,” I was aware of how a number of the songs begin with solo piano before being joined by other instruments. I appreciated that it provided a contrast and an opportunity to experience Fiona’s playing and melodic sensibilities on their own before flowing into a collective musical pool. One exception, however, is the final track, which opens with the haunting sound of a Chinese reed instrument called the Bawu played by Paul Jarman. The understated alchemy of this instrument and the piano evokes a Zen-like ambience and is a perfectly peaceful way to bring the album to a close.
Like her music with its global spectrum, Fiona herself is a world citizen and travels far and wide for her performances. As I write this article she has just returned from a regional tour of Australia, and is preparing to leave soon for a European tour. Fans in the US won’t have long to wait either, as she will be in America this September – November 2013. One supporter is well-known LA music publicist Beth Ann Hilton who said of Fiona: “I really appreciate that Fiona likes to push boundaries with her music, her image AND her approach to marketing. She works very hard for excellence at every level, seeking out opportunities and trying innovative tactics; she’s both talented and brave!” And speaking of innovative marketing, in addition to CD’s and downloads the album is also available in SACD and vinyl for audio connoisseurs. 600 Years In A Moment is a masterful mélange of superlative musical performance, stunning contemporary composition, and widely diversified cultural influences. Preceded by a string of award winning and critically acclaimed recordings, Fiona Joy Hawkins has outdone herself with this release and continues to set the bar ever higher in the unfolding of her creative potential.
Review by Michael Diamond – Music and Media Focus