I carried on working on site, in a warehouse, through the first lockdown. It’s only now, nearly two years later, that I am experiencing the world of homeworking, with its shortcuts, compromises, and insecurities. For the first lockdown, I was part of a skeleton team of 10 that kept the public face of the business open while the world collapsed around us. Every morning, I’d get into the car and drive 10 miles to work, and I got into a routine where the first song I heard in the day was a gentle lullaby. A simple refrain that built into something larger and romantic. It helped me sigh my way into the day. Something about the repetition in the music helped as one time around the sun melted into another.

Which is to say that I instinctively understand where Brooklyn pianist Simon Dinnerstein is coming from in making Undersong, her third home studio recorded, Covid-themed album of the past 2 years. Undersong is an assembly of music built around the theme of refrains. For Dinnerstein, the sense of repetition and rhythm a refrain brings came from daily lockdown walks around Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn. Limited to one place for exercise and connection, the details, the natural shifts, the play of light and shade, the gentle satisfaction and the raging anxiety all come into view. On Undersong, exploring within the limitations of music that returns to a theme, Dinnerstein manages articulate the same sense.

The album is book-ended by two versions of Couperin’s ‘Les Barricades Mystérieuses’. While some pianists choose to play this piece as a baroque technical fireworks show, Dinnerstein does not rush and allows this elegant 300 year old tune to gently curl itself around you. Although the refrain could structure the energetic movements of a dance, here it brings to mind the repetition of days and small socially distanced gestures towards people on the other side of a mysterious barrier.

Befitting an album released on Orange Mountain Music, a specialist Phillip Glass label, Dinnerstein’s interpretation of Glass’ ‘Mad Rush’ is central to the emotional heart of Undersong. Both the playing and the piece are stunning. The context of lockdown breathes an entirely different sort of air into the work. In 1979, Glass wrote the work for the Dalai Lama’s first public address in America. While the original may have captured something cross cultural between the frenzied intensity of New York matched against the sparse stillness of Tibet, in Dinnerstein’s hands, this work is infused with a bored anxiety of missing the city, the tension between the pain of loneliness and a constant awareness of the suffering and grief of thousands, a sense of mortality. Just as it may be getting all too much, Dinnerstein creates a joyous diversion out of Couperin’s ‘Tic Toc Choc’. In this piece, the refrain greets you like an unknown spaniel chasing its tail in the park.

A full performance of ‘Kreisleriana’ by Schumann is the other substantial work in this album. In some senses, Dinnerstein’s delivery here feels like the most conventional part of the collection. Her playing is exceptional, but for a less experienced listener, the contemporary emotional punch of the suite is less obvious. However, a quote from Grant Hiroshima perhaps demonstrates the reason ‘Kreisleriana’ fits well on Undersong. He writes:

“In hindsight, it is hard for us to resist hearing a foreshadowing of madness and doom in the uncanny lilting march of the concluding section of Kreisleriana. Something worrying and unknowable passes us by and dissolves into the distance.”

Undersong has more long-term relevance than just as a memory capsule of ‘something worrying and unknowable [passing] us by and [dissolving] into the distance’. As can currently be seen in England, the truth of what happened in the lockdowns and what that meant is still unraveling and being contested by ‘the visible enemy’. In producing this emotionally honest, evocative, provocative set of performances, Simone Dinnerstein helps to earth the lockdowns in our collective imagination in all of their fearfully fierce, banally anxious expressions of small dignity and human solidarity of people forced to stand behind mysterious barriers. They tell a truth that will need remembering in the years ahead.

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