As I type, a snowstorm is ripping across Highway 401, which runs through Southern Ontario roughly from Detroit to Montreal. I am sheltering from the storm with “Scattering Stars” Michelle Qureshi’s seventh album of instrumental compositions occasionally described as ambient, new age, electro-acoustic and neo-classical.
I would be hard-pressed to find a better fit on a day like today. Charting at #7 on the One World Music charts in the UK and #14 on the ZMR in the US, “Scattering Stars” is gaining a lot of positive attention for the Indiana-based composer and classically-trained guitarist. I for one am enchanted by this collection of pieces, which work equally well as relaxing background music or as compositions to be carefully unpacked.
When you think about ambient music, you don’t often think about the acoustic guitar. But the first thing you hear at the top of Beyond the Field, the opening track to “Scattering Stars”, is the ring of Michelle’s Stonebridge G-22CR-C. She sets the tone for a collection of pastoral and organic compositions with this gently plucked, deliberately paced piece for two guitars, supported by an ethereal pad.
For Crystals, Michelle continues in the two-guitars-plus-pad mode, but creates a new tonal landscape by switching to the electric, building up to one of the record’s rare upbeat moments, briefly channeling Floyd, before descending into a electro-symphonic movement which brings to mind the unearthly world alluded to in the album title.
From this brief diversion (which is built on and explored in the record’s second act), we return to the pastoral realm, with the acoustic guitar singing beautifully at the top of Bridge to Where I Do Not Know, one of the tracks that approaches the realm of “song” with its melodically-driven movements and its relatively concise and trackable structure.
I am fascinated by instrumental music. I am consistently in awe of the ability of ambient music to break free of established structural and melodic convention and to follow a more organic and environmentally responsive path. Listening closely to “Scattering Stars”, it’s clear that Michelle Qureshi knows exactly what she’s doing both as a composer and performer, but I encourage you to listen to the record more passively (at least initially) and allow the music’s natural, delicate motion to lead you along.
Still, it probably shows my bias that Dust, the fifth track, is a standout for me. In some ways, Dust closes the first act of “Scattering Stars” – a short piece for a solo acoustic guitar (supported only by a second guitar in the final coda), Dust shows Michelle at her most economical. The shortest track in the collection, I would call this a song as well, with her Stonebridge singing a beautiful, slightly moody melody played with a slide and showcasing Michelle’s distinct knack for hanging chords that inspire just enough tension to pull us along by the hand.
Michelle spends what I think of as the second act of “Scattering Stars” expanding the sonic template of the album. In Overheard, she uses sampled vocalizations and piano to bring us deeper into her inner world. In Chasing the Wind, she uses a wooden flute to evoke a pre-modern landscape. Stargazer is built around the album’s first appearance of percussion instruments, both electronic and acoustic. Forgetting Tomorrow is the most classical piece, with strings and piano evoking a cinematic effect that works as a perfect closer for act two.
What follows is a triptych of three lengthy pieces which bring the return of her Stonebridge and pull in all of the sounds and textures Michelle has developed throughout the album. Each of them alternate between the pastoral and melodic and the ambient and otherworldly, culminating in Solstice, which rewards three minutes of tense, textural exploration with the release of a chorus anchored by strummed acoustic guitar.
“Scattering Stars” closes with Philosophy, one of the most communicably emotional tracks on the album and one of the most rhythmic, conveying a sense of closure even as it introduces something new and strange to this collection. Michelle Qureshi brings a truly unique sound to Stonebridge guitars (or vice versa), which is undoubtedly familiar to fans of her Music Mondays series on Twitter, where she can be often seen improvising on her G-22CR-C.
You can listen to and buy “Scattering Stars” here: http://www.michellequreshi.com/music