Music for Music: Dulce
Maria Elena Silva: Dulce
By Dan Ursini ©2023
The inventiveness, energy, and ambition of composer/singer Maria Elena Silva’s new album, Dulce, on the Big Ego label, is incredible. She creates music that reconfigures how songs are structured: how polyrhythms and textural contrasts can be employed with transforming effect.
An excellent example is the opening track, “Love, If It Is So.”
Silva quietly vocalizes a delicate melody that conveys a late-night honesty in concentrated form. It is layered alongside textures evoking the sonic agitations of the urban night. The resulting music expresses the enduring tensions that live just above and just below the surface in romantic relationships. After the vocal ends, there is an intense instrumental section in which Marc Ribot employs the sardonic, wiry tone of his guitar to blistering effect. The rest of Silva’s musicians play contrasting rhythms that lock brilliantly and suggest a turbulent power entirely appropriate to the volatile emotional content of the lyrics.
Deeply contrasting textures are signature elements of the songs on Dulce. Especially arresting is “Narrowed.”
The band Silva uses for Dulce includes highly experienced players: guitarist Ribot; Carey Frank on Hammond B3 organ; percussionist Stephen Hodges; percussionist Danny Frankel; and longtime drummer Scott Dean Taylor. Silva herself plays a specially tuned guitar.
Throughout this 30-minute nine-song album, the knotty inexplicables of human connection come to life. A taxing extrication from a bad relationship is the subject of “Jasper.” Its uneasy harmonies signal a disturbing vibe that envelops Silva’s highly nuanced vocal. Mystifying silences, staggered polyrhythms, and bluesy fills sustain the tension.
Stylistically, Dulce shows traces of jazz, folk, and popular music from a range of cultures. A key to Silva’s music is her attitude toward how they are used: “I’m not interested in making conventional singer-songwriter albums, and so I tend to recruit musicians who are well-versed in folk music and jazz but don’t play it. This allows us to float just above conventional tropes, nodding to the attitude of the ‘song’.” She affords the players tremendous latitude: “Any ‘song’ can sound completely different depending on who I’m playing with—the instrumentalists have a lot of say in how the energy moves.”
Beyond that, the musicians enable Silva to arrange her songs the way she wants: “These days I’m able to find such intuitive and sensitive musicians to collaborate with, my voice can set back within the ensemble and act as an instrument . . . I prefer everything to be weaving.” She explains, “This . . . requires an instrumentalist who is okay with participating rather than driving the music.” Of the musicians on Dulce, she says, “I am incredibly lucky to work with them. They are patient, versatile, and absolute monsters on their instruments.”
Silva is the sole singer on Dulce. She remarks, “I focus on control and sensitivity and am very intentional in allowing my voice to be as sincere and genuine as it’s supposed to be.” On “Ruido Blanco” she does a superb job of finessing the delicate turns of its melody.
And on “Silver Linings” she hits a striking blend of dreaminess and regret in her vocal. This otherworldly song offers brilliant interplay between guitar, organ, and percussion.
The interaction intensifies sharply on the last song, “Sugar Water.” Radically divergent rhythms generate tremendous energy. Ribot’s guitar playing is inspired, edgy, and reckless.
To understand what Silva is accomplishing on Dulce, it helps to know how her musical ideas originated. Music entered Silva’s life early in her childhood, and it made its presence felt in overwhelming terms: “I sort of lived in a musical fantasy world as a kid—my dreams had soundtracks playing throughout them . . . and it felt like 100% of the time I had a full symphony playing in my head . . . ”
Another decisive element of her thinking started in her early years: “I was always very resistant to traditional learning and putting anything on paper (except poetry) . . . I could see the colors and the movement of the music in my mind but notes on a staff seemed arbitrary and abstract to me . . . As a result, I’ve played by ear throughout my life and manipulated my guitars, creating alternate tunings . . . for whichever concept I’m focusing on.”
It appears that Silva has a fundamentally distinct vision of the reality of music. The experience of listening to her songs shows that she belongs in a special category: a serious composer working in a multiplicity of pop idioms. Dulce is an album of art songs the likes of which I have never heard before. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983). His play, Sandbar Flatland, directed by John Malkovich, was produced in 1978 during the dawn of the legendary Off-Loop Theater scene in Chicago. In 1990 Chicago Magazine selected it as one of the ten best shows of the preceding 25 years. Beyond this, Ursini worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at such Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication. In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, has had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org