Review: Elysian Fields – ‘What Should I Say’

At the launch of the debut album from Elysian Fields, the only band in Australia that features the electric viola da gamba, listeners at Sydney’s Foundry 616 were treated to something really rather special. Rarely have I been as spellbound by an album as I was by this one. It’s only fair to share the joy.

A delicate chime-like piano, a whispering saxophone, a flawlessly pure voice. After a few moments they’re joined by an understated bass, muted drums and the comforting tones of the electric viola da gamba and before you’ve realised it, you’ve been drawn with gentle invisible fingers into an exquisite musical world. Part I of pianist Matt McMahon’s composition ‘What Should I Say: Four Poems of Thomas Wyatt’sets the scene for this debut recording from Elysian Fields, the extraordinarily well named ensemble made up of McMahon, Matt Keegan (saxophones), Susie Bishop (voice and violin), Siebe Pogson (bass guitar), Finn Ryan (drums) and Jenny Eriksson who plays that most remarkable instrument, the electric viola da gamba. Eriksson is believed to be Australia’s only exponent of the electric viola da gamba, an electrified version of the seven-stringed baroque-era instrument. She’s also a leading exponent of the traditional acoustic viola da gamba and leads the critically acclaimed baroque ensemble The Marais Project.

So with this mix of musicians what are we hearing here? We like to place music into this or that genre, but that can be too narrow a way of looking at things with the effect of diminishing the listening experience. Creative partnerships between musicians from varying musical backgrounds often elude a definitive categorisation. The music of Elysian Fields has been called a fusion of baroque, jazz, folk and world music, and while there’s certainly truth in that description – there were moments I could have been listening to Monteverdi in a recital hall, moments I could’ve been in the warm confines of the Village Vanguard, moments I could’ve been in a shepherd’s hut on Ireland’s rugged west coast – it’s also inadequate. Elysian Fields is a seamless combination of old and new, composed and improvised, experimental and planned, intuitive and calculated. The result is like a thick winter blanket: warm and beautiful.

It’s many years since I’ve read Wyatt’s poetry, and McMahon’s elegant song cycle is quite the most wonderful way to become reacquainted with it. What Should I Say starts with a simple musical setting, gradually becoming more complex as the accompaniment becomes richer. It’s clear McMahon intended the words to be the star of the work: Bishop’s voice, startling in its clarity, is the perfect vehicle for the sixteenth century poet’s lyrical offerings. There’s a wistful quality to the gamba and piano accompaniment… and is it possible to fall in love with the saxophone? If it is, it’s all down to Matt Keegan’s depth of artistry.

‘Southern Cross is the only Elysian Fields’ non-original on the album. Written by Swedish guitarist Mats Norrefalk and arranged by bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, it’s a melody to get lost in. McMahon’s always sensitive playing, Eriksson’s tender buttery gamba and the siren song of Keegan’s saxophone imbue this piece with a plaintive grace.

There’s a more pronounced jazz approach to Pogson’s composition ‘Dark Dreaming’, and there’s a most appealing interplay between gamba and bass, not surprising considering it was written specifically for that pair of instruments with the other parts added later. Keegan’s saxophone is thoroughly entrancing, McMahon’s solos are characteristically captivating and imaginative and Ryan’s thoughtful drumming complements the dreamy mood. Standing in for Finn Ryan at the launch on 14 March was Dave Goodman, whose deft melodic approach to his instrument is always a joy to hear.

Keegan’s ‘Elysium is a most evocative composition. A wealth of images flitted through my mind as the music made its way through its four parts. For me, Part i is sometimes like a light breeze whistling through trees and sometimes like running so fast you could be flying, and for a brief moment in Part ii, I was transported to an intriguing sideshow at one of those old-time carnivals. Prompted by the lyrics and the warm jazz that marks Part iii, I was sailing on the high seas, not thinking of heaven so much as the journey we take to get there. Part iv begins baroquely (if that’s a word) with a mesmerising gamba soon deep in conversation with the saxophone. Melodies are interwoven as the rhythm becomes more insistent, more urgent. It’s all deeply satisfying.

‘At Carna, another McMahon composition, this time with some lovely folk music elements, is a lush yet contemplative exchange between piano and gamba. Eriksson’s silky gamba sings. There is a quiet poignancy to this piece that somehow evokes times long past when, perhaps, things were simpler.

What Should I Say offers so much to the listener, conjuring a range of emotions and summoning long forgotten memories. These are musicians at the top of their game blurring musical boundaries, bringing the past into the present and taking it back again. This album is a perfect melding of baroque and jazz with many other musical elements and traditions brought into play. The result is gorgeously multilayered music, in which’ as Thomas Wyatt might say, “let me here rejoice.”

Elysian Fields:

  • Susie Bishop – voice and violin
  • Matt Keegan – saxophones
  • Jenny Eriksson – electric viola da gamba
  • Matt McMahon – piano
  • Siebe Pogson – bass guitar
  • Finn Ryan – drums


What Should I Say is distributed by MOVE Records in Melbourne and is available now on CD as well as in download form via Bandcamp, Spotify, CD Baby and iTunes.