Evoking the Cards – a ZED album review

When my wife and I first heard (and saw) the brilliant ZED at the Cirque du Soleil Theater Tokyo back in November, 2008 as part of CirqueCon 2008: Tokyo! we were enthralled by the beauty of the René Dupéré score.

As he says in the ZED Program Book: “I’m very intuitive and instinctive in my approach. Once I’d read François Girard’s script for ZED I responded right away, and I often find that my first responses are better than the second ones. What I’m looking to capture is the colour of a show, and how to express that colour musically. I take inspiration from all kinds of musical sources but my style is more European than North American.” The Program Book also makes mention of the scores Mediterranean, Caucasus and Ireland influences, saying it includes “frequent incursions into the strange, injection emotion and fire into the major arcana.”

We hoped that when it was finally adapted for album it would contain much of the power and emotion we heard in Tokyo. When we heard “The World’s Meet” on the Cirque compilation set “25” (Cirque du Soleil Musique CDSMCD-10030-2, 2009) we were pleased and hopeful – the song fully managed to convey the power and beauty of one of the best moments in the show with a great arrangement and a stirring chorus finale.

But we were concerned that, as with the Dupéré score of KA, the CD wouldn’t include the ZED creation band and musicians, consisting of:

Kevin Faraci – Singer (Abraka & Kernoon) – United States
Johanna Lillvik – Singer (characters Noui & Erato) – Sweden
Michel Cyr – Keyboards, Bandleader – Canada
Patrick Kelly – Guitar – Canada
Darrell Craig Harris – Bass – United States
Paul Lazar – Violin – France
Paul Hanson – Bassoon – United States
Mario Labrosse – Drums – Canada
Ron Wagner – Percussion – United States

But after talking with Cirque Musical Director Alain Vinet (see Fascination issue #67-August 2009) and hearing the Violaine Corradi-composed score for ZAIA (Cirque du Soleil Musique CDSMC-20029, 2009 and note our interview with Violaine Corradi in Fascination! issue #69 – October 2009) we were encouraged they’d make the “right” decision and record the creation band for the album. We just had to wait and see but the waiting was hard, especially after the originally announced release date came and went.

Finally, on October 13, 2009, the US had its first opportunity to hear whether album producers Martin Lord Ferguson & Ella Louise Allaire succeeded. The album (Cirque du Soleil Musique CDSMC-20031, 2009) will appear in Canada on December 8.

The album consists of the following tracks, along with the album times and the acts they go with:

1. First Incantation (2:14) – Show Opening
2. Birth of the Sky (5:37) – Bungee
3. Reaching Up (4:59) – Chinese Poles w/trampoline
4. Blue Silk (4:37) – Aerial Silks
5. High Temptation (4:55) -High Wire
6. Vaneyou Mi Le (4:34) – Banquine
7. ZED in Love (4:49) – Aerial Straps
8. Kernoon’s Fire (4:30) – Juggling
9. Mirror of the Two World’s (4:35) – Baton Twirling
10. The World’s Meet (6:36) – Hand to Hand
11. Fiesta (4:50) – Trapeze
12. Hymn of the Worlds (3:23) – Charivari and Show Finale

Total playing time: 55:50

All the songs were written by René Dupéré except “First Incantation,” “Vaneyou Mi Le,” “Kernoon’s Fire” and “Fiesta” which were written by: René Dupéré, Ella Louise Allaire & Martin Lord Ferguson.

To quote from the Producers Note on the CD packaging: “Attempting to put the emotions of Tokyo’s resident Cirque du Soleil show, ZED, into music was both an incredible and challenging experience. Using the live band, string orchestra, choir and various singers, we wanted first and foremost to bring out the unique emotions and the feeling of traveling through different worlds evoked by the show’s rich palette, thus allowing the listener to continue the journey through the music. We juxtaposed musical elements that initially might have appeared from different genres. These varied tones finally took an inviting turn and created an evocation of which we are particularly proud.”

First things first – is it the creation band? Happily YES! The fantastic ZED creation band plays throughout with only a few exceptions, interestingly enough having to do with vocalists. We’ll use the numbers from the official order above to make distinctions.

Singers Lillvik and Faraci sing lead vocals throughout. Exceptions are Ella Louise Allaire on 6 and 11, and in a signifigant exception Martin Lord Ferguson on 8, “Kernoon’s Fire.” Both add “additional vocals and vocal effects” to several tracks but these don’t distract from the front and center lead vocals. Throat singer Matt Becks sings in the introductions to 1 and 9. A 50-member choir adds to several of the songs. The childrens choir from FACE school chimes in on the finale “Hymn of the Worlds.”

To address a concern expressed by fans, I note that the lead vocals are clear and upfront in the mix and not overly diluted with effects or additional side vocals.

The only additional solo musician is Jean-Marie Benoit who adds classical guitar to 7. The Bel Canto de Bratislava string orchestra appears on 7 of the albums tracks adding a well-recorded full string section, sounding more like KA than ZAIA.

The album was a multi-national affair, with the ZED band and vocalists being recorded in Tokyo, the chorus in Canada and the orchestra in Slovakia.

Putting the songs into the order they appear in the show comes up with the playlist below. The approximate length of time the act takes in the show is listed after the act.

9b. Mirror of the Two Worlds (from 2:34-4:35)
Animation Music – 5:00

1. First Incantation (2:14) – Show Opening-2:00
* Combining of the two halves of ZED (1:00) has no known title, does not appear.

2. Birth of the Sky (5:37) – Bungee-4:15
* Birth On Earth – Lasso – This song does not appear on the CD-show length 8:00
* Clown act here (3:45) has no music

3. Reaching Up (4:59) – Chinese Poles w/trampoline-6:15

4. Blue Silk (4:37) – Aerial Silks-5:00

5. High Temptation (4:55) -High Wire-9:15

8. Kernoon’s Fire (4:30) – Juggling-6:45
* Going to Intermission clown act (1:00) has no music
* Entre’act (played for the last ten minutes of intermission) has no known title, does not appear.

6. Vaneyou Mi Le (4:34) – Banquine-9:15

7. ZED in Love (4:49) – Aerial Straps-5:45

9a. Mirror of the Two World’s (0:00-2:34) – Baton Twirling-3:00

10. The World’s Meet (6:36) – Hand to Hand-8:15
* The clown act of playing with the Shaman’s pole (3:00) has no known title, does not appear.

11. Fiesta (4:50) – Trapeze-10:45
* Closing of the Storybook (4:15) has no known title, does not appear.

12. Hymn of the Worlds (3:23) – Charivari and Show Finale-6:35

The track order of the CD follows the show pretty closely, with little missing music. The arrangements sound full and complete and hit all the major sections of the pieces (which can be played multiple times in performance to fit the act on stage).

The biggest omission is that of the lasso act music – it is a major part of the first act of the show. On the other hand, the music for the Entre’act is more of a jazz instrumental that is played while the audience is returning to their seats after intermission and really isn’t vital to telling the show’s story. Still, the 55 minutes of music on the CD leaves the possibility of 20 or so minutes more (as shown by the recent ZAIA soundtrack), so the songs could easily have been included. I’m always in favor of filling out a CD, specially in the case of soundtracks, so this disk gets a “C” (average) on the Value scale.

The packaging is similar to ZAIA; a tri-fold cardboard package with the booklet in the left-hand pocket and the CD (featuring Johanna in her outfit from “Birth of the Sky”) on the right. Blue is the predominant color. There are also messages from the composer and producers.

The Program Book credits Dupéré as Composer and Arranger, with Martin Lord Ferguson as Musical Director and Co-Arranger. Ella Louise Allaire handled Orchestrations and Arrangement for the Chorale.

So how does the music match up to the powerful show? Pretty well, in this reviewers opinion. A quick run-down of the albums tracks with some notes:

“First Incantation” brings in the main theme carried by bassoon, with throat singing to begin. “Birth of the Sky” is Johanna’s showpiece and she sings clearly throughout, with strings adding power to the theme. “Reaching Up” has some nice jazz solo breaks, but some compression artifacts detracting from the climactic finale. “Blue Silk” puts its emphasis on the guitar and the blending of the duet vocals. With “High Temptation” the orchestra adds a lot, perhaps too much, diluting the band of much of its punch. The fast pacing of the tune reflects the fleet footing of the performers on the high wire.

“Vaneyou Mi Le” has producer Allaire singing lead in a switch, but her voice is out of place here compared to Johanna’s clear tones. “ZED in Love” is a slower finely crafted piece. “Kernoon’s Fire” is a puzzlement. It’s out of place from the order of the show and includes Ferguson’s vocals instead of Kevin’s. Again, the lower tones of the singers vocals here seem out of place compared to the rest of the album.

We have since learned, through a posting on Kevin’s mailing list quoted on Cirque Tribune, that the vocal sung in the show is mostly improvised by Faraci himself. “It was a directorial decision that the vocal line I wrote fits the character for the show,” Farraci wrote, “and since putting my version on the album would be a conflict of interest with the rest of René’s music, I was not asked to record that song.” This explanation is interesting since four songs, including “Fire,” already have co-writers. To have listed Farraci as another co-writer of “Kernoon’s Fire” and have him sing his improvised vocal line on the CD would have been keeping with the “spirit” of the show at least, and not in this writer’s opinion been a “conflict of interest.”

My biggest complaint with the musical arrangement comes next, with “Mirror of the Two Worlds.” In performance this song comes full-force with powerful drumming from the beginning. It is also short – the baton twirling act it accompanies is only about 3:00 long – and when the song and act come to an end so soon you almost feel let down. When the chorus comes out of the surround speakers in the theater it’s a chilling moment of power you wish could be longer.

The CD plays it straight with the arrangement of the song though reducing the sound of the drums in the mix. The appearance of the chorus is still chilling (the first chilling moment we had listening to the CD), but you really want the song to be expanded upon. It’s not like there wasn’t time available on the CD, I really would have preferred another couple of minutes of arrangement here. Though it reflects the show pretty closely I think it was a missed opportunity.

On the same track is a bit of the music from the Animation, which could be considered the “Overature.” I would have preferred this as it’s own separate track, perhaps arranged with the music from the “Entre’act.”

“The World’s Meet” is exactly the same as it appears on “25.” Though now I notice that percussive consonants in the vocals make a distracting slapback sound in the vocal reverb. We love the tinkling wispy ending but it isn’t long enough, it could have taken more time to fade – this is true of several tracks on the album. “Fiesta” sets up a nice groove that stays there and cooks throughout.

The better of the two ZED pieces to appear in the Cirque Audition Kit MP3’s was, to me, “Charivari,” which morphed to become one of the sections of the show finale. I really enjoyed the chorus vocals as presented there, which the CD version omits. However, the chorus at the beginning of “Hymn of the Two Worlds” is the second chilling moment of the album. It has a beautiful choral sound and brings the album to a powerful close. Though note to the producers; it would be OK if you left more low-frequency subwoofer rumble in with the big booms at the end of songs – it would really be fun to feel the boom as you do in the show.

Other flaws are noticeable but minor. There are several obvious edits within some of the songs. (With 20 spare minutes of space, why did they bother?) And there are some scuffling sounds noticeable in the background at the choral beginning of “Hymn of the Two Worlds” that could have been corrected.

Bottom line: Yeah, I have nits to pick, but overall they got this one RIGHT. The brilliant music of this brilliant show has been pretty accurately translated to this disk. The enhancements to the creation band sound are interesting and, I feel, appropriate. My wife and I are seriously considering whether this CD replaces “O” as our favorite Cirque soundtrack.

After some time traveling other musical avenues (Varekai, Zumanity, remixes, Delirium) Cirque is coming back to their core. ZAIA, ZED, and the compilation “25” signal a back-to-basics approach that this Cirque fan applauds.