Sarah Peebles' first album was produced for the American Composers Forum's label, Innova. The title Suspended in Amber comes from an expression by William Malm describing the sound of the shô. A traditional Japanese mouth organ, the shô is at the center of the four works presented here. So is Peebles' dedication to bringing together antique and new music forms and her willingness to blend her Occidental culture and Oriental studies. The album opens with a short piece for solo shô. In "Blue Moon Spirit," the listener has the occasion to get to know this instrument rarely heard outside Japanese court music (after the release of this album, shô master Kô Ishikawa would work with avant-garde genius Otomo Yoshihide). Its soothing sounds, like a tiny accordion played slowly, instigate an atmosphere of meditation that will prevail throughout the album. "Tomoé" is the main opus of this disc, a 40-minute suite in seven parts. Scored for three musicians using MIDI controllers, shô, and small noisemakers, it frames improvisational segments into a ceremony that, when performed live, also includes Japanese calligraphy. The sounds of nature are mixed in with small rocks and bird calls to create the vivid illusion of a Japanese garden. "Phoenix Calling," for shô, tuned percussion, and bugaku percussion ensemble, pushes the fragility of minimalism all the way to the music of Toru Takemitsu and Morton Feldman. The concluding "Aqua Babble" is an improvisation between Peebles (shô, electro-acoustics), Takahashi Harada (ondes Martenot), and Kazue Mizushima (string telephone installation). Strongly focused on texture and silence, the piece sounded Spartan upon its release in 1996, but now it seems it foretold to some extent the reductionist developments of free improvisation a few years later. Suspended in Amber has a fragile beauty to it, but the compositions are actually quite solid, making it an impressive debut.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture