Michael Hoppé






New Age meets Modern Classical. Synths are completely replaced, strings and pianos play the very melodies which are usually residing in purely electronic climes. Grace by Grammy-nominated composer Michael Hoppé escapes from these genre conventions by overlaying their distinct features in a concentrated effort. Released in May 2013 on the Boulder, Colorado-based Spring Hill Music, I was approached by the label and received a copy of Grace on CD. I knew the work of Michael Hoppé beforehand, but the time to bring up his viewpoint on New Age here at AmbientExotica was never truly applicable during earlier stages, but since artists now tend to embrace the century-long tradition of classical arrangements done with real stringed instruments much more than ever before, probably due to the ubiquity and ominous omnipresence of hardware synths and software libraries, it turns out that Hoppé was right all along to cover this ever-growing niche; not that it matters if an artist is right or wrong. Notwithstanding the entanglements of who has the last word on this, the composer calls the album Grace since this word »covers so much what I strive for in my music, namely elegance, beauty, gratitude, and prayerful.« While New Age music is more often than not about mysteries, cavernous vaults and voyages through enchanted dioramas, Michael Hoppé’s approach, called heart music, is much more transparent. No enigmatic track titles, no admixed wind gusts or reverberated afterglows, just the superimposition of classical instruments played by cellist and frequent collaborator Martin Tillman, violinist Alyssa Park and the occasional female canto by Celeste Godin and AnDee Compton. Hoppé himself plays the piano, guitar, arranges the strings and has written all 12 compositions himself. It is the textures that make this work special, for there is not one single synth injected in any of the compositions, the only graspable aura of electronic devices can be found in the artificial reverb that coats the performers’ vocals. Here is a look at all 12 tracks, specialties and tendencies of Grace.


As expected, the gateway to Michael Hoppé’s Grace is not only open, but open to scrutiny. The four minutes of Romance For Cello see Martin Tillman’s signature instrument in the spotlight, surrounded by silkened, partially diffractive string washes which function as quasi-counterparts, not in a music-related sense, but more in terms of their balmier approach which softens the lead instrument’s rufescent aura of heat. An even more dun-colored backdrop is imposed on Ave Maria, done on purpose in order to let Celeste Godin’s seraphic soprano transcend through the nocturnal peripheries. Like a magic wisp or scintilla, her solemn recital becomes gradually altered as the accompanying strings cautiously begin to illumine the formerly abyssal forsakenness from behind, leading to a climactic, designedly prolonged apogee of elation and thankfulness. By contrast, the following Song For Haya (1928–2011) is an unexpectedly tramontane piece, having left all obstacles behind. This is implied by Hoppé’s comparably saltatory piano helixes and the gently wafting mélange of various string. The arrangement may be minimal, the composition itself, however, is awash with light, spawning multitudes of golden-argentine refractions. A wondrous marvel of contentedness.


Whereas Moonflower showcases an erbaceous pastureland of rich alluvial soils bathed in moonlight qua Martin Tillman’s plaintive cello cascades and Michael Hoppé’s adjacent piano tones of yearning and devotion, Safe To Port showcases a particularly hazy and mellowly whitewashed circumambience; AnDee Compton’s vocals are the nucleus, but the otherworldly backing choir is of equal importance, not only stressing the silvery fog bank that diffuses through the ether but being so beguiling and sylvan that the timbre of the male voices seems like an echopraxia of the string-based undercurrent. Mayfly Waltz then encapsulates a helical music box melody in gingerly swelling string runlets. The music box, while enshrined, towers above the spheroidal fluxion and therefore retains its pristine purity.


Always, meanwhile, is a piano arrangement at heart, with the supporting strings forming an epithelium of complaisance that is, at least to my mind, not necessary in this particular track. The sylphlike unfolding of the bittersweet tone sequences seems so fluent and verdured that an additional ensemble of strings takes the focus away from the beautiful melodies. And yet the strings do find a more than appropriate home in Theme For Adele (1860–1906) where they enclose Celeste Godin’s second and most haunting wordless performance on this album, and given that this piece is about a murdered wife and mother from New Zealand, the sound waves of it become even more crestfallen. Flumes of droning piano vesicles sporadically turn into protrusions, the echo of the vocals augments the impression of a spectral phenomenon taking place, hued in sepia tones, long gone and fugacious, yet existent in the endemic realm of Grace. The follow-up Years Ago remains in this heterodyned nullpith, at least thematically so, but is more vigorous, sporting Martin Tillman’s doleful cello tones girdled by Michael Hoppé’s similarly lugubrious succour on the piano.


Where Theme For Adele (1860–1906) was vulnerable like a figment, oscillating between its state of existence and weight of the past, Years Ago is rooted in reality, as the tones not only sound fuller, but more pressing in their dolorousness. AnDee Compton is given the opportunity for a second performance as well: Angeli Dei is the fitting title to a diffusing alloy of strings. There is one surreal addition to the arrangement which makes Angeli Dei memorable, and that is a plucked dulcimer-like guitar whose pointillistic slaps feel sun-soaked, emitting a high plasticity and comparatively great attack rate. This new texture is a surprise, and whether its inclusion is ameliorative with a view to the big picture or not cannot be concluded by the reviewer, especially not since the final two tracks draw from materials intrinsic to Grace and see the guitar used for a second time. The Parting is a polyhedric piece of chamber music featuring anything but Alyssa Park’s violin and Martin Tillman’s cello, but it is the final Love Overflows whose apotheosis is solely driven by Martin Hoppé’s guitar and his vocals, a first in his career… maybe even a hint of the things to come?


Grace is a New Age album that turns the generally accepted notion of this genre upside down, but then again, most of Michal Hoppé’s albums are prone to achieve this in the humblest possible way. The skeleton of each composition as well as the merging tones are undoubtedly New Age-focused. Since this album features anything but classical instruments – even Hoppé’s acoustic guitar sounds decidedly Baroque and wonderfully antediluvian –, the composer’s vision is actually closer to the genre particularities or peculiarities than many a work. Traveling back in time to a state both pure and aglow with the aid of the latest technology, that is one of the genre’s credos. Hoppé does not succumb to prolix or circumlocutory long-form pieces, nor is he keen on vertiginous heights and a bird’s eye perspective. Grace is indeed heart music, closely tied to the family tree, to personal stories, even taking melodies from previous works into account (Angeli Dei was, according to the liner notes, originally influenced by Verdiana off the 2009 album Nostalgie). Since cellos, violins and pianos reign throughout Grace, it inevitably comes down to this: listeners who favor glistening synth structures and spheric sound sculptures will undoubtedly be put off by Hoppé’s classical approach, even though the harmonies do sound familiar enough to their trained ears. Fans of chamber music, the recent electro-acoustic movement, aural cinematography and Modern Classical will get the most out of this work. The interstices are often more exciting and rewarding than both the euphony or the surfaces themselves. Grace is available on CD and a digital version on Amazon MP3, iTunes and cohorts.



Ambient Review 307: Michael Hoppé – Grace (2013). Originally published on Jan. 15, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.