Best known as the leader, composer, and virtuosic guitarist of The Willie August Project jazz trio (whose current CD, Surrender to the Wind, has gained international acclaim and charted as the #1 New Addition to XM Satellite Radio Real Jazz in early 2006), Ben Siems actually grew up as a classical cellist. For this one-of-a-kind CD that showcases his extraordinary compositional range, Siems places his first instrument at center stage, supporting its majestic tone with diverse musical backgrounds created using a unique blend of acoustic instruments and otherwordly sound effects. Featured instruments include flute, piano and other keyboards, vintage vibraphone, guitars, and an array of percussion. Other sounds include the haunting narration of the Empire at Twilight suite, whispered sensuously in Brazilian Portuguese; a variety of drumstick-on-string effects on both cello and guitar; recorded samples from modern dance rehearsals, featuring footwork and breathing exercises; and indescribable sounds Siems created using his moistened fingers and a sheet of glass.
The featured cello speaks quietly from the background throughout most of the title suite, bursting forth with all its soulfulness and resonating as if in a medieval cathedral during the uplifting final movement (When the Horizon Bursts). And while no audio recording could possibly capture the stunning experience of a live performance of track #8 (Threshold: Entrancending; Incantascence), with its mesmerizing four-hands performance technique shown on the album's cover, the duet's neoclassical lyricism and fiery intensity are nonetheless well represented on this disc. And few modern compositions surpass the closing Timescape suite when it comes to showcasing the full range of a cello's sonic capabilities.
But fans of Siems' oft-praised guitar work, and the fascinating interplay between Siems and percussionist Jeremy Hauer, heard on The Willie August Project's CDs, need not despair. Siems plays his trusty axe with characteristic lyricism on track #4 (Ruins, part 1, from the Empire at Twilight suite) and track #11 (The Isolation of the Ascendant, from the Timescape suite). On tracks #7 and 9 (Shadow Chasers and Waiting for Yesterday), he displays his ability to coax a vast array of sounds from a simple hollow-body electric guitar and vintage Fender amp, without any electronic processing at all. Indeed, track #7, a guitar-percussion duet performed by Siems and Hauer, will have special appeal for Willie August Project aficionados. And it is Hauer who provides the soul-shaking climax of the title suite (track #3, Time, too, Crumbles), with his trademark sea of cymbals.
Throughout his life, Siems' artistry, and indeed his entire personality, have been defined by his incredible diversity of interests. As a student, he naturally excelled in music classes, but was just as admired for his facility with languages, manual crafts in shop classes, physics and math, and his greatest strength, creative and expository writing. More than any other recording he has released to date, Empire at Twilight provides a window into this passionate composer-performer's unendingly curious mind.