Music in the Time of Apocalypse

Photo of Eric Chasalow
Mike Lovett
Eric Chasalow

Eric Chasalow, the Irving Fine Professor of Music and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, is a composer whose electronic and acoustic music has been widely commissioned and performed in the U.S. and abroad. In a new, deeply personal album, “Ghosts of Our Former Selves,” on the Suspicious Motives Records label, he meditates on the watershed year we’re living in, as well as the postwar tensions, power struggles and environmental crimes that led us to 2020.

“I may be a product of midcentury America, but I am certainly not nostalgic for it,” Chasalow — who grew up in a New Jersey suburb with five siblings, a scientist father and a mother who sang American standards around the house — writes on his blog.

“This album expresses personal grief, but it is not an expression of grief for some idealized notion of those times,” he continues. “It is about leaving them behind with all of their blind, destructive notions of progress.”

Elsewhere on the blog, he writes: “The year 2020 is our apocalypse — something I do not mean as hyperbole.” And so the 10 songs on “Ghosts of Our Former Selves” “draw on everything I have spent my six-plus decades learning, and some things I have not. They are the conscious response to the death of my parents, followed by the death of my mentor, all converging with the arrival of what, with a bit of luck […], will be a few more decades of life.”

And yet, he says, he’s an optimist; otherwise, he wouldn’t release his music to the public. Listening to the album is like taking a road trip with an expert, eccentric storyteller. The images and memories bubble up unpredictably amid a burst of flute, a quiet guitar. On one track, in a hushed, confessional voice, Chasalow sings about fire ants, skinks and possums, memories from a childhood stay in Key West, Florida.

Brandeis’ Lydian String Quartet performs on the title track. “I have always been a fan of the quartet,” says Chasalow. “The first violin does a lot to define the sound of a quartet, and first violinist Andrea Segar, the quartet’s most recent addition, is a very refined, effortless-sounding player.”

Bob Nieske, director of the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble, and Chasalow’s singer/songwriter wife, Barbara Cassidy, who is the senior associate director of centers and initiatives at Brandeis International Business School, also contributed to the recordings, on which Chasalow plays guitar, mandolin, flute, piano and organ.

Associate professor of painting Joe Wardwell, known for his large-scale murals and paintings based on song lyrics, created the album’s cover art. “Somehow it felt like our work converged, arriving at this project,” says Chasalow. “Joe’s palette is bright, and these songs are dark, but I love the combination.”

In ancient Greek, apocalypse means “unveiling.” “Unveiling must be the order of the day,” Chasalow says. “We must seek what is true and at the core of our practice. Composers cannot predict what it means to send music out into the world. But even in the most fraught times, send it out we must, in the hope that we just might be sharing a perspective that makes some small, meaningful contribution.”