The Way is Read by The Staves and yMusic


The Way is Read / The Staves / yMusic

The words ‘fusion’, ‘crossover’, or more provocatively ‘pop-ssical’ (pop/classical), are enough to make any musician nervous. I admit, there are a lot of watered down, easy listening, 4/4 time piano ballads out there. But in this unique collaboration between Watford folk trio The Staves and New York contemporary classical ensemble yMusic, something very different is created.

The two groups were introduced by Justin Vernon, best known as the frontman of indie folk band Bon Iver, at Eaux Claires Festival 2016. Vernon has pulled off some risky collaborations, most notably his own feature on Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Rob Moose of yMusic described: "When Justin raised the possibility of our groups collaborating, we immediately upped the stakes by focusing on a combination of new Staves songs and transformations of yMusic's composed works. This project was born of voice memos sent back and forth across the seas, two frenetic days in a Manhattan rehearsal space, a festival set, and a single day of recording in the woods outside of Eau Claire." [1]

My high expectations were slightly let down on first listen. The Way is Read opens with a The Staves original “Hopeless”, unchanged from its first release on their preceding album If I Was, except for a slightly poorer recording acoustic. This a cappella start felt out of keeping with the purpose of the collaboration, showcasing only one half of the group and lacking new material. The next track “Take Me Home” does little to balance the sound of the two ensembles, often sounding like two conflicting pieces played simultaneously. The juxtaposition of the explosive instrumental sforzandos against the vocal legatos comes before the collective sound of the two ensembles has been fully established, a risk that does not come off well.

While these incongruities are hard to overlook, the rest of the album offsets this initial discord. “Trouble on My Mind” uses strings-heavy instrumentation to match the vocals, with moments like lulling string crossings bedding the long, held notes sung (“comes” and “goes”, etc). A kind of ethereal whistling from the instruments leads into the virtuosic yMusic solo track “Bladed Stance”, a transition that is both captivating and unobtrusive. “All My Life” and “Silent Side” both achieve a serene sense of control over the listener, before “Year of the Dog” declares itself as the first ‘poppy’ sounding track.

What follows is perhaps the most experimental piece of the album, based on the Irish folk song “Courting is a Pleasure”. In contrast to its title, this track is a very ‘difficult’ listen, both due to character and execution. The dark mood is set by an atonal opening scream from the flute, which is extended into a chilling, high-pitched drone which permeates the first section of the piece. yMusic explore the limits of their instruments by a wide use of ‘extended techniques’, such as the violinist hitting the wooden part of their bow against the strings. Halfway through, there is a jarringly still viola solo, before the drone returns in a lower pitch with recall in the voice of the phrase "Courting is a pleasure, between my love and I".

The most unconventional track of the album is swiftly followed by the most conventional, “All the Times You Prayed”. Here, the guitar accompanies The Staves’ signature sound of pure sisterly harmony, with the addition of lush strings and woodwinds. On close listen, there is a returning theme of figures rising in pitch against others falling in pitch. In particular, the climax to the first “heavens above” involves the violin ascending against the cello descending. “Appetite” plays with an off-beat, running rhythm that increases the momentum in preparation for the last two tracks of the album. “Sprig of Thyme” is based on another folk ballad, which uses the metaphor of “thyme” to mean time, or according to some sources, virginity. The words, warning against taking false lovers, take centre stage here. The final track, “The Way Is Read”, is a punchy, sea-shanty-like flourish that plays with quasi-minimalist ostinatos like waves, finishing the album on a high.

Overall, The Way Is Read is a daring fusion of two very different musical styles, which creates some things inconsistent, but other things new. As the album progresses, it begins to rise into a genre of its own, which I hope will incite more unexpected collaborations between the worlds of contemporary classical and folk pop music.

Angela Lochmüller, August 2020

References [1] Malt, A., 2020. The Staves And Ymusic Announce Collaborative Album | Complete Music Update. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 14 July 2020].

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