Classical Music

Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s “In Our Softening” Finds Tenderness in an Abandoned Piano


In Our Softening, the sophomore piano album by Sophia Subbayya Vastek, is a journey that moves beyond the realm of the piano and into a place of healing and contemplation. After a time of grief, Vastek found herself drawn back to music and healing through an unassuming, old upright piano. Once housed in a desecrated church that had become the home of a hate group, the piano weathered many years of neglect and even a large crack in its soundboard. The church was eventually sold to a good friend of Vastek’s, and the piano made its way to her. To her surprise, the felt on the hammers had softened over the years, the opposite of a piano’s normal aging process.

This upright’s history reveals itself through the tender, exquisite sounds that intertwine and permeate the entire album. With the expertise of Vastek’s husband, sound engineer Sam Torres, the listener gets to experience the fullness of the piano’s sounds: small clicks and mechanisms permeate the recording and add to the upright’s inviting warmth.

The opening of the album, “The Seas that Made Us” evokes an ebb and flow of movement, and eventually a moto perpetuo that introduces the upright piano as a character in the story of this album. It becomes evident that the piano has more to offer than merely the tones of the notes — rather, the unique production sounds become an almost analog electronic track that completes the texture of the piece. The result is an intimate communion with the innermost workings of the piano, its story, and Vastek’s story.

These stories intermingle in tracks such as the titular “In Our Softening,” and those dedicated to family members such as “K.B.,” “Tatuś,” and “My Mother’s Hands.” The piano’s softening over time becomes a metaphor for Vastek’s contemplative way of holding space for each of these family members. The mellow chords lack most of the attack that would be present in other pianos, and it is difficult to imagine these pieces on any other instrument, almost as if they were “site-specific” pieces, or more accurately, “piano-specific” pieces. The muffled tones imbue a poignancy that transcends the chordal patterns that Vastek uses to access an atmosphere beyond the earthly.

“Lost Histories” tangles with the past, its melodies alluding to scales found in many folk traditions. Vastek utilizes the unique voice of the piano and its dampened timbres to build extramusical meaning behind these sounds, which fade quickly or almost seem to come from a distance in their hushed quality. The opening exudes a longing to know the past, a subject that permeated Vastek’s first album, Histories. As the piece progresses, it speaks and stutters in a flurry of rhythmic propulsions, with many of the mechanisms in the piano overshadowing the actual tones of the piano strings.

Sophia Subbayya Vastek–Photo by Kiki Vassilakis

“In this Life” opens with a haunting minor melody in octaves, which would seem commonplace on most pianos, but the upright’s out-of-tune nature brings the listener to an otherworldly dimension. Vastek artfully leaves space for the strings to mute, warble, and bend in such a way that the listener might believe the sound is electronically manipulated.

“After Stardust” brings the album to a close with a soundscape that imagines celestial expanses with an undertone of optimism. Through its contemplative arpeggios and ethereal melodies, Vastek captures the essence of finding hope and rebirth after darkness: a story of her own and of this piano.

In Our Softening is a journey into the deep inward spaces of Vastek and the upright, and there is an earnest quality to the beautiful imperfections the piano brings to each piece. Vastek artfully creates a space that is vulnerable, exquisitely performed, and sensitive to both her own healing and that of the upright.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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