Classical Album of the Week: Fermi's Paradox
July 5, 2021. How do you solve a 21st-century problem with 17th-century instruments? Lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick answer that question in their latest album, Fermi’s Paradox. The album was conceived, performed, produced and released in 2020, during the pandemic.
Like all performers around the world, McFarlane and Surrick found their engagements and recording dates suddenly cancelled in March of 2020, What was supposed to be a house concert given by McFarlane for a live audience at Surrick’s barn/home in April turned, instead, into a recording project that took them three months to complete.
For the album, the two wrote new compositions and arrangements and rehearsed and worked intensely. With both of their busy concert schedules upended, writes Surrick, “We had all the time in the world.”
The album is a mix of three main genres: delightful new, original material, which would not sound out of place on an indie folk/rock station; arrangements of traditional folk music; and arrangement of classical works from the Baroque era. Sometimes all three genres follow one another in a medley on a single track.
McFarlane’s lute playing is malleable and compelling, his sound and sense of pacing just right in Baroque and traditional music, and fresh in his original contemporary numbers. Surrick’s viola da gamba is more distinctly Early Baroque no matter what the genre. The long, resonant tones from her instrument place the sound clearly in the “pre-cello” era.
The title track of the album, "Fermi’s Paradox," by McFarlane, is an engaging composition that makes reference to the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who noted the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and various high estimates for their probability.
"Fermi’s Paradox tries to evoke the awe we feel when looking up at the night sky and wonder if anyone is out there," McFarlane says about his composition. "Sections of the piece contrast the wonderment of gazing out at the cold majesty of the universe with the warmth and familiarity of life on earth.”
Writes Surrick:”...as the future of live performance remains uncertain, we have to wonder, “is anyone out there?’ Without a reason to play, without audiences, without other musicians, why should we practice? The answer has to be: we play because we can. We play because the world needs music, our hearts need music. This is what we do in the face of isolation and despair. We are not alone.”
Listening to this album, neither are we.