Straight To Elegance: Sarah Neutkens’ Cumulus



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When I was nineteen I was constantly writing poems.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but at the time not only did I think I was documenting something important, I thought I was chronicling collegiate emptiness better than anyone ever had. The poems all featured romantic failure, social awkwardness, and existential worry and they were housed in an ever-growing folder that I was certain was bursting with historical and personal consequence.

I imagined before I turned twenty I would churn out thirty volumes that in the future were sure to be kept in a climate controlled wing of my alma mater’s library.

But then I ran into the work of Rimbaud, Keats, Verlaine, and Coleridge, who also wrote with fever and zeal at nineteen and did it much, much better. By comparison, my work was a risible affair, riddled with youthful enthusiasm, bloated self-importance and zero scholarship.

An example: At nineteen, Shelley wrote “Queen Mab”: “Hath then the gloomy Power/Whose reign is in the tainted sepulchers/Seized on her sinless soul?

Meanwhile, at nineteen I wrote a poem called, “Do The Night Thing” and one of the least elegant lines read: “She’s so rad I can’t sleep straight.”

You see my point.

So my work was no match for Shelley’s thin and misty form of the Fairy Queen or the jackal of ambition’s lion-rage, and I knew it.

“So many words,” the Trashcan Sinatras’ Frank Reader told me once when I asked him about his early work with his band. Reader was talking specifically about his lyrics and his penchant for cramming his songs with line after line.

Take “Obscurity Knocks,” for example:

Always at the foot of the photograph, that’s me there
Snug as a thug in a mugshot pose, a foul-mouthed rogue
Owner of this corner and not much more
Still these days I’m better placed to get my just rewards
I’ll pound out a tune and very soon
I’ll have too much to say and a dead stupid name

Reader told me an economy sets in as we get older–a practicality takes over and imposes a tidier order to the emotional verbiage that pours out of us when we’re younger. He pointed out how different his later lyrics were—how Spartan they by comparison they were when held up next to their earlier cousins.

Which brings us to Sara Neutkens.

The nineteen-year-old Dutch pianist and composer seems untroubled by the youthful penchant to overflow onto the canvas and jam pack work with the last throes of teenage torment.

Neutkens seems to have skipped all that and gone straight to economy—in other words, she’s bypassed excess and gone straight to elegance.

That elegance is on display on her new album, the crushingly beautiful Cumulus, which is comprised of eight piano compositions. Neutkens, whose work has already been broadcast on Dutch National Radio 4, is a rare find. She’s a musician of such finesse and poetic piano phrasing, her work brings to mind everyone from Martha Argerich to Steve Reich.

The follow-up to 2016’s Hexagon EP, Cumulus is an atmospheric blend of imaginative compositions that range from the gentle flurry of “Victoria” to the delicate fire of “Inferno.” Neutkens is a dexterous player who knows when to dig in (“Rigel”) and when to pull back (“Cumulus”) and her preternatural understanding of composition and musical restraint is as mysterious as it is beautiful.

Recorded at Kytopia Studios, Utrecht and mastered by Jean van Vugt, Cumulus is a striking blend of modern classical music and stirring cinescapes—it’s a riveting and atmospheric collection that’s as commanding as it is imploring. Sure, Neutkens zoomed past teen angst, but she’s unafraid of wrestling with the big demons. Cumulus may be an instrumental album, but this wordless confrontation with love and desire and the mysteries of the cosmos is by far one of the most moving albums you’ll hear all year.

Sara Neutkens on Spotify