Echoes December CD of the Month: David Arkenstone

David Arkenstone's Ambient "Winterlüde": Echoes December CD of the Month

by John Diliberto 12/1/2023

There are a lot of Christmas albums out there, good and bad, mostly bad. But there are few that capture that mystical wonder of the winter season around the solstice and Christmas. David Arkenstone’s Winterlüde does that, evoking the mood and the memories of the season in chilled, post-classical modes.

David Arkenstone is an artist I’ve followed since his 1987 debut, Valley in the Clouds. You can only be dazzled by his recorded output, with some 50-odd albums, and those are just the ones under his own name. They span Celtic music, Native American flute albums, ambient excursions and orchestral fantasies. The fantasy aspect is evident in both form and imagery. After all, he takes his name from The Hobbit and has worn clothes that make him seem like a 17th century swashbuckler. Several albums are inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasies, including two volumes of “Music Inspired by Middle Earth” and he has created his own fantasy albums working with author Mercedes Lackey on a trilogy that began with In the Wake of the Wind. But he also has an ambient side that can be heard on Ambient World and Colors of the Ambient Sky, both previous Echoes CD of the Month picks.

Arkenstone recorded his first Christmas song in 1988, “I Saw Three Ships” for the Narada Christmas Collection. Since then, he’s released several seasonal albums including Native Christmas, Christmas Lounge and Celtic Christmas. Those and the others all featured traditional Christmas carol fare.   

Winterlüde is different. This is a personal album of all-original music drawn directly from Arkenstone’s own memories and his romanticizing of the winter season. It took me back to my winters growing up in New England. It’s a tone poem for the season: an ambient chamber music work that etches out his memories in soundwaves on the snow. And there isn’t a Christmas carol or even a sleigh bell in sight.

Except for cellist Carlyn Kessler, Arkenstone is the only musician on the album. He’s assembled an orchestra of his own instruments as well as virtual instruments from sample libraries that Arkenstone manipulates with an artistry that makes them seem real, except when he wants them to sound unreal. “Whispers of the Winter Wind” is a good example of that. It’s a perfect tone poem, as mass sustained strings create a bed of snow, with a choir gently wafting above it like angels breathing upon the earth. And speaking of breathing, “The World Sleeps” floats on long breaths from strings and reed instruments in low harmonics. It’s a mysterious, haunting piece  that’s less sugar plums dancing in their heads and more weight of the world on their shoulders.

Winter is a time where sound changes. The clangor of life comes to a standstill after a snowstorm. Cars are locked in snowbanks, the snow acts like a giant blanket, muffling what noises remain, quieting echoes. “Surrounded by Silence” and “Kisses in the Snow” capture this. The former is a perfect title for a winter song. Even though Arkenstone lives in Southern California, this perfectly depicts a northern winter with muted strings and a distant choir calling out across the snow-white landscape. “Kisses from the Snow” moves through an ostinato piano motif in hazy tones while Carolyn Kessler bows a mournful cello solo that soon expands into multiple cellos in circular harmony. It carries you deep into that snow-white landscape.

Not all the pieces are directly tone poems. Despite its ominous title portending the oncoming longer nights of winter, “Darkening Skies” sounds more like a celebration of darkness, a madcap sleigh-ride (without the sleigh bells.) Over a repeating piano motif, Arkenstone brings in strings in a rapid-fire groove. With each round, more instruments enter with percussion, flutes, a sitar and more. The track accelerates into a gallop that seems much more joyful than the title suggests.

“The Icy Brook Finds Its Way” is an ambient chamber music track with Arkenstone playing a looping motif on muted piano as low bass strings cross a chilled landscape. A harpsichord and high strings emerge in a cinematic expanse asking the question: did the brook find its way or did you? You’ll feel like you’ve arrived home at the end.

David Arkenstone has crafted a winter album that captures the mysticism, weather and chill of the season. It is flawlessly pitched in its blend of ambience and emotion. If it wasn’t David Arkenstone with his New Age reputation, it might sit next to musicians in the post-classical realm like Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and Kevin Keller. Much of it would fit nicely on Deutsche Grammophon’s 2021 compilation, Winter Tales, which was an Echoes CD of the Month that December. David Arkenstone’s Winterlüde is the seasonal album you’ve been waiting for.

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