The Giving Shapes - Earth Leaps Up (CD)
This album contains nine song pieces for piano, harp, and vocal written by The Giving Shapes, a Vancouver-based duo of Robyn Jacob and Elisa Thorn. Cover art by Meghan Hildebrand. 4-panel gatefold wallet.
1. Dousing 4:53
2. Tessellate 4:48
3. Sightlines 4:22
4. Gravity 3:57
5. Upstream 6:02
6. Shadow's Hue 4:34
7. Faces 4:20
8. Mirror and Echo 4:16
9. Earth Leaps Up 3:20
(released February 26, 2020)
all songs by Robyn Jacob and Elisa Thorn
piano, vocal by Robyn Jacob
harp, vocal by Elisa Thorn
recorded, mixed and mastered by Chris Gestrin in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
cover art by Meghan Hildebrand
designed and produced by Yuko Zama
p+c 2020 elsewhere music
The Giving Shapes
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.
This project is funded in part by FACTOR, the Government of Canada and Canada’s private radio broadcasters. Ce projet est financé en partie par FACTOR, le gouvernement du Canada et les radiodiffuseurs privés du Canada.
The Giving Shapes is a collaborative project between harpist/vocalist Elisa Thorn and pianist/vocalist Robyn Jacob that formed in fall 2017 at the Banff Centre for the Arts. This is the duo’s first release.
This project triangulates aspects of new music, creative music, and song-writing, combining their classical training and their involvement with the Canadian creative and indie music scenes. Though they originally met while both pursuing degrees in classical music at UBC in 2007, they share an interest in many musical styles. Their sound reflects broad influences from artists including Nico Muhly, Bjork, Jonny Greenwood, David Lang, and Caroline Shaw.
Thorn and Jacob are interested in merging the familiar with the new, and draw from their wide range of influences to create music that is honest. Their approach involves equal parts of intellect and feeling, pursuing both accessibility and experimentation equally. The process of songwriting varies from song to song, but usually one of them brings in a kernel, and the two develop parts together, parts on their own, then back to different possibilities together.
“The piano and the harp are a really interesting match because they are so related in timbre and function, but individual enough to offer each unique sound palate. The possibilities of blend, texture, and harmonic depth are really exciting. Robyn is an endless inspiration to me in all the things that she does. We have quite different approaches to writing (Robyn is more rhythm and pattern-based, whereas I am driven mostly by melody and harmony) so the collaborative writing process is really interesting and stimulating.” (Elisa Thorn)
"I like Elisa's integrity and devotion to her artwork, and her attitude in general as a musician and an artist. Also, it is a privilege to be able to make art with one of your best friends." (Robyn Jacob)
The Giving Shapes is a synthesis of their shared musical aesthetic and curiosity with their long-standing relationship as co-curators and presenters. Music from the duo’s projects has been featured in jazz festivals such as the Montreal and Toronto Jazz Festivals, new music festivals like Music on Main, and indie pop festivals including the Campbell Bay Music Festival.
The duo's sincere yet polished, cool yet warm, celestial yet humane approach towards sounds is integrated into a single intimate world of music with everything impeccably balanced. Thorn's and Jacob's ethereal voices convey subtle emotions, gently unfolding the narrative of their personal world into a unique space where the acoustic beauty of classical music and the accessibility of pop music humbly entwine around each other.
Michele Palozzo, Esoteros
First significant detour from the territories explored so far by Yuko Zama's Elsewhere , the record debut of the vocal-instrumental duo The Giving Shapes (harpist Elisa Thorn and pianist Robyn Jacob) offers a pleasant stylistic diversion without sacrificing the refinement and the high quality composition represented by the American label. Earth Leaps Up seems to collect the legacy of the ambitious Timbre - a harpist herself, no longer heard of after her magnum opus from 2015 Sun & Moon - in reconfiguring an essential and intimate version of her richly baroque chamber folk.
Like the angelic voices of Elisa and Robyn - often divided into offset vocal harmonies - the two classical instruments refer to each other as if they actually were the horizontal or vertical translation of the other: the ample natural resonances allowed to their minimalist patterns, sometimes mindful of the "Electric Counterpoint" by Steve Reich ("Dousing"), they create the illusion of a floating cloud of sounds in which the specular melodies playfully chase one another in a perpetual circular motion.
The intoxicating sweetness of certain Japanese inflections ("Upstream", "Shadow's Hue") is only a fleeting latitudinal grip for a music that resides outside of any geographical or temporal coordinate, woven with the most loving care in a completely pacified mental space, preserved in the luminous quiet of those spring afternoons that the artistic expression has always aspired to eternalize in its romanticized splendor.
Certainly the preciousness of these nine tracks lies also and above all in their being able to communicate to anyone without conceptual intermediaries, by virtue of a studied simplicity that flows from the undoubted compositional dexterity of the duo but aims directly at emotions, wrapping us in an embrace that evokes and at the same time comforts the fragility of our dormant inner child.
Such a touching and stylistically accomplished debut could well have appeared in the catalogs of way more renowned modern classical labels, but the "disinterested" entrance of The Giving Shapes in the Elsewhere ranks ends up giving further and authentic prestige to both parties. Moreover, only in this way will we be sure that at least the most demanding connoisseurs of contemporary music will not miss this gem. (2/29/2020)
Arthur Krumins, Dusted Magazine
The Giving Shapes fuse neo-classical songwriting, minimalism and chamber folk in this debut release. The duo, formed by pianist Robyn Jacob of Only a Visitor and harpist Elisa Thorn, differs slightly from Jacob’s earlier project. Though it layers similar melodic lines and harmonies over avant jazz-pop, the pace of The Giving Shapes is more suited to a sit down concert. The interplay between their two voices as they overlap creates a collage of images that lend a feeling of exploring nebulous ideas with their incantation. There are no obvious effects layered over the basic elements of their two voices with piano and harp cascading in halting riffs that echo back and forth between the instruments. The closeness to live performance, paired with the complex and detailed nature of the compositions, creates a mood of visionary introspection.
At the beginning of “Dousing”, the piano striking gently percussive intervals in a reverberant sound stage recalls Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The ambient quality is further emphasized by the tone of the vocal delivery. The voices of Thorn and Jacob soar effortlessly as they harmonize in a clear yet hushed manner. The overall effect is like the word “gentle” personified.
The longest piece on the album, “Upstream,” begins with an unhurried harp melody, which when joined by Jacob’s piano falls somewhere between a folk and jazz ballad, like a more reserved Joanna Newsom. After they explore this theme and trade impressionistic lyrics back and forth the instrumentation takes a proggy shift to a galloping pace before returning to its meditative centre. Throughout the album, the duo uses unconventional song structures that still retain passages of verse and that have a sense of flow. The musical backdrop is given room to breathe, and the comforting side of the sound has a sleepy charm.
Earth Leaps Up does have a few moments of crescendo, such as the swell at the end of “Gravity”. But the album doesn’t attempt to go beyond its chosen array of moods. It’s the subtle changes in which instrument takes the lead, which voice dominates in a given line keep your attention engaged and carried forward with the groove. You feel like you’re being carried into a dream, familiar yet strange. Because the lyrics read like fragments of poetry, this collection retains its mystery while being constructed from easily discernible elements. The Giving Shapes have crafted a coherent and carefully composed world of sound. (3/18/2020)
John Eyles, All About Jazz
Two years and ten releases after Elsewhere was inaugurated, some of the label's aficionados may have thought they knew what to expect next. If that were the case, a few people could be surprised when they hear Earth Leaps Up for the first time. Formed at the Banff Centre for the Arts, in 2017, The Giving Shapes is a collaboration between harpist and vocalist Elisa Thorn and pianist and vocalist Robyn Jacob, who met in 2007 while they were each studying for a degree in classical music at the University of British Columbia. (So, this album is another release by Canadians, in the aftermath of Another Timbre's Canadian Composers Series.)
Despite their classical music degrees, the music made by The Giving Shapes is neither classical nor contemporary composition. Instead, Earth Leaps Up comprises nine songs, composed by The Giving Shapes, ranging in length from three-minutes-and-twenty-seconds to just over six minutes, forty-one minutes altogether. Throughout, Jacob and Thorn accompany themselves on piano and harp, both of them also singing.
Their voices are pure and true, hitting every note and harmonising together effortlessly, without any of the hallmarks of classically-trained voices—rolled r's and suchlike—nor (ignoring some wordless harmonising at the end of the title track) the scatting habits of jazz singers nor the power and volume of rockers. Partly, the latter is because the songs do not deal with such rock topics as love, loss or jealousy, so no upswells of emotion need to be conveyed; the two are far more adept at communicating subtler emotions; song titles such as "Gravity," "Sightlines" and "Tesselate" give a feel for the territory the lyrics cover, "Tesselate" concluding with a call-and-response between the pair singing the words "intuition," "basic rhythm" and "tessellation."
Perfectly complementing the vocals, the piano and harp complete a rich soundscape which belies the fact that there are only two players involved. The playing goes way beyond being accompaniment, as the pair add intricate fills and filigree details throughout. Altogether, all four elements fit together ideally, so that nothing seems lacking and any addition would be gilding the lily. Although The Giving Shapes cite influences including Nico Muhly, Bjork, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Bang on a Can's David Lang, none of those gives a potential listener any idea of what they should expect from the duo's music. Although the music is easy on the ear throughout, in no way is it easy listening or wallpaper music, being far more interesting and innovative than those labels suggest.
Interestingly, each of the pair cites the influence of the other on the music. Thorn: "Robyn is an endless inspiration to me in all the things that she does"; Jacob: "I like Elisa's integrity and devotion to her artwork, and her attitude in general as a musician and an artist. Also, it is a privilege to be able to make art with one of your best friends." Altogether, it sounds as if we shall be hearing plenty more from The Giving Shapes in the coming years. Good news. (3/14/2020)
Eyal Hareuveni, Salt Peanuts
The Giving Shapes – the Canadian, Vancouver duo of harpist-vocalist Elisa Thorn and pianist-vocalist Robyn Jacob – offers a new sonic avenue in the new music catalog of the elsewhere label. This classically-trained, genre-defying duo was formed in 2017 and triangulates sensibilities of folk, singer-songwriting (with the obvious, seminal echoes of the British one of Robin Williamson and co.), art-rock songs of Björk or Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (but also of Norwegian vocalist Susanna Wallumrød collaboration with Swiss baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi) and contemporary music of American violinist-vocalist Caroline Shaw and Bang on a Can co-founder-composer David Lang.
«Earth Leaps Up» is the debut album of the duo. The Giving Shapes cleverly merge familiar and accessible elements with clear, experimental tendencies. Thorn and Jacob also know how to blend the acoustic, timbral qualities and sonic palettes of the harp and the piano and how to weave the melodic themes of Thorn with the rhythmic sense of Jacob. These songs are wrapped in an intimate, ethereal-celestial atmosphere that is not shy from being emotional.
The nine songs flow leisurely and gently but only repeated listening reveals its many secrets. Thorn and Jacob have developed a rare kind of true, collaborative performance that sounds totally organic and often letting the songs sound as may fit larger ensembles. Their warm vocals and rich harmonies keep overlapping and merging into each other. Their strong melodic sensibilities (check «Gravity»), innocent and patient delivery and subtle elements of drama (best captured in «Sightlines») and introspective emotions (“Faces”) sketch a complex yet friendly vision, openly optimistic but one that sounds as feeding on a peaceful, spacious nature, as you can found in British Columbia.
The Giving Shapes, no doubt, already have shaped their very own sound universe. Now it is your turn to take this beautiful gift. (4/19/2020)
Ian Mather, Dusted Magazine's Mid-Year Best-of List
There’s just something nice about a record where, a few minutes after putting it on, your partner suddenly remarks “you know, this is very calming”. It’s not that the work of Robyn Jacob (voice, piano) and Elisa Thorn (voice, harp) is soporific or somehow uninvolving, more that there’s a somehow centered kind of deliberateness with which they approach these songs that feels oddly reassuring. The way their voices often echo lines (or slightly altered lines) back at one another can feel vaguely Stereolab-ish, but rather than the coolly pulsing, layered grooves (and transient noise bursts) of that outfit, the simplicity of the arrangements here feels direct and clean and often comforting. But it’s the type of comfort that lets you see the difficulty you’re trying to tackle head-on, not the comfort that swaddles you away from having to deal with the world. It’s more bracing than lulling, in other words, and frequently beautiful at that. (7/8/2020)
Spencer Cawein Pate, The Light of Lost Words
The Giving Shapes, a Canadian duo comprised of the harpist / vocalist Elisa Thorn and the pianist / vocalist Robyn Jacob, make the most aesthetically beguiling and emotionally compelling music I’ve heard in some time; their songs live in the slipstream between pop and classical, composition and improvisation, the individual and the collective. With the release of their remarkably assured and auspicious debut album, Earth Leaps Up (on the always-exceptional label Elsewhere), The Giving Shapes have immediately leaped into the first ranks of my favorite living musicians. (Fans of Joanna Newsom and Julia Holter are sure to enjoy this album as much as I do.)
While Thorn and Jacob have only been formally collaborating as The Giving Shapes since 2017, listening to Earth Leaps Up gives the impression that they’ve been playing together for a lifetime–such is the intricacy of how their voices and instruments curve and entwine and braid together. Their approach to harmony and hocketing is prismatic, as indicated by the title of their lovely “Mirror and Echo”: Jacob and Thorn flow effortlessly between singing in exquisite unison to splitting, refracting, and reflecting the melody back and forth. There are so many moments of understated yet heartstopping beauty and grace to be found within nearly every track: the stately and gentle instrumental passages in “Dousing,” whose wandering notes fall like soft rain; the overlapping vocals and interlocking contrapunctual melodic lines of “Tessellate”; the tempo shifts in “Upstream,” which transforms from a lullaby into a rallying cry; and the piano arpeggios and koto-like harp in “Shadow’s Hue” (my favorite track on the album). Thorn and Jacob’s lyrics are smart, poetic, and unapologetically feminist (especially in the affecting MeToo-esque narrative of “Gravity”). Although often abstract, their imagery is nevertheless grounded in the grandeur of the natural world, the changing of the weather and the seasons, the shared sensuality of the body, the exuberance of the unfettered voice.
Despite its sonic palette of just piano, harp, and voice, Earth Leaps Up never becomes monotonous; its stylistic diversity encompasses everything from passages of choral music to inflections of jazz. Considered as an organic whole, the album reminds me of the celebrated metaphor of the tangled bank in the closing paragraph to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Earth Leaps Up is a work of surpassing elegance, quiet confidence, and generosity of spirit (making The Giving Shapes’ name most apt). Its surface delicacy conceals deep reserves of emotional intelligence and inner strength. As Darwin put it, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (2/22/2020)
Stuart Derdeyn, Vancouver Sun
The Giving Shapes is a new collaboration between genre-hopping harpist/vocalist Elisa Thorn and pianist/vocalist Robyn Jacob. Both busy on numerous fronts in the local music scene, the duo’s debut album, titled Earth Leaps Up, was recently released on Elsewhere Records.
Blending the musicians’ classical training, unusual songwriting sensibilities and love of heady, expansive, atmospheric pop, the nine-song album is a standout effort.
The record is also proof that good things come to those who wait. Particularly when you bring together one artist with a love of chords and another with rhythm at the forefront.
“The Giving Shapes came together more than anything out of my desire to work with Robyn, who I had kind of been courting as a friend and collaborator,” jokes Elisa Thorn.
“We had both gone to school together at UBC, but we weren’t friends because we were too cool to be friends with anyone at music school. Over the years, we shared peripheral social circles and I had so much respect for what she did musically, that I wanted to work with her.”
Thorn had also made the creative decision to only work with people that she also really cared about outside of their musical chops. The thinking being that this would be one more step forward towards making great music and missing the drama that is often associated with creating it. She also knew her love of melody and harmonics would pair perfectly with Jacob’s advanced sense of rhythmic and pattern-based composing. Because both players maintain extremely full schedules, it took time to get the project in motion.
Then, in the fall of 2017, both artists were at the Banff Centre for the Arts and The Giving Shapes came together.
“We didn’t have any clear vision at all when we started working together,” says Thorn. “But I knew Robyn was someone who shared my work ethic, kind of a no-BS approach with a just-go quality. Even though it was the first collaborative songwriting that either one of us had done, it turned out to be very easy, although we have very different writing styles.”
Those two writing styles come together beautifully, as each player’s strengths seems to compliment the other’s in songs such as the ambient opening cut Dousing, jazzy Upstream and avant-pop “single” Tessellate. This latter tune not only showcases both musicians’ instrumental prowess, but makes clear that both are exceptional singers capable of crafting mesmerizing mini-choirs of vocal harmonies. Fans of neo-orchestral electronic artists such as Agnes Obel, FKA Twigs and Nico Muhly will find much to appreciate in The Giving Shapes.
Jacob credits the amount of other collaborating that the two had done prior to forming the project with providing a spark in the songwriting. While not going into the shaping of the sound with clear agendas, they were able to enter into creating with clear understandings of each other’s composing assets.
“Before we were writing together, we were pretty much collaborating in every other way but that,” says Jacob. “We were supporting each other’s projects, organizing events and other music initiatives together, such as the Bitch Tapes mixtape featuring womxn-identifying artists. When we finally sat down to write music and lyrics with one another — which had been a very solo thing for me up until then — it was really easy and really cool.”
Although the group started in 2017, the many other demands on their time meant that the process took time. Recorded with engineer Chris Gestrin, the album was finished in 2019.
“It all came together naturally, where we would get together and pore over lyrics and ideas and then go back to our home studios and put things down,” says Jacob. “Looking back at the finished songs, it’s often quite hard to know who contributed what in many cases. Which was sort of what we wanted it to be.”
“It took a bit longer to get it released, as we needed to find the right label,” says Thorn. “We took quite a bit of time, as it was both of our first time working with a label. I think we found the right fit with the owner, Yuko Zama, really being someone with strong opinions and a real affinity for the music.”
Given that this is art-pop, it’s only fitting that the cover of Earth Leaps Up is as bright, shimmering and vibrant as the music found on the record. Thorn says the cover was another part of the creation that just “fit.”
“The cover is by a fantastic contemporary artist based out of Powell River named Meghan Hildebrand, who I feel like I have been emailing for years to ask about using some of her artwork for an album,” says Thorn. “It always ended up going in a different direction, but this time it was the right project to use and we both agreed. For a time, we even entertained only writing songs that related back to the cover painting, but that didn’t last.”
That concept probably would have interrupted the flow of what appears to have been a thoroughly enjoyable process for both artists. It’s understandable that neither one would want to get bogged down in details when the music is being made so well. They are both very busy.
Jacob leads the quintet Only A Visitor, pegged by CBC Music as one of the 10 Vancouver acts to watch. In 2019, the group released Technicolour Education to strong reviews. Music from the album is being used in a collaboration with artist Nancy Tam and the Jump Jump Go ensemble that examines the history of the Chinese diaspora in Western Canada. Titled Double Happiness: Detour This Way, the show’s scheduled Music On Main performances have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Thorn released three different albums in 2019. Her band Elisa Thorn’s HUE released both Flowers For Your Heart and The Other Side: Afterlife Sessions (live) with guest Toronto-based vocalist and soundscapist Laura Swankey. Thorn also put out the more electronically oriented Selenotropic. Only shortly before enforced self-quarantine was announced for travellers, Thorn was in Stockholm with a project led by Vancouver-based violinist/composer Meredith Bates. The musician laughs that the COVID-19 shutdown arrived at a time when “sleep was in short supply.”
Now well rested, as someone who gigs constantly she’s wondering what’s next. Naturally, The Giving Shapes release show on April 18 has been cancelled. This hasn’t stopped the two from continuing to exchange music for what might be a next record or from pursuing some general zaniness.
“We decided a few days ago to make the next project making some weird costumes that relate directly back to the cover art, so that we just become one big colourful blow-up,” says Thorn. “Hopefully, these could be a part of the performance when the day comes that we are able to perform again.”
For the moment, The Giving Shapes is the “most rehearsed” project either musician has ever been involved in. That release show is going to be a burner. (3/31/2020)