Artist: Michael Samson
One of my greatest regrets about the current trend towards digital distribution and downloading mp3 singles is the loss of a physical product with liner notes, pictures, etc. that contextualize the music as part of a cohesive body of work and creates more of a sense of connection between the listener and the artist. A case in point is the absolutely spectacular packaging of music, photography, and poetry created by pianist Michael Samson on his latest CD entitled Rapture.
The presentation of this album is one of the finest I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ll go into detail on it later in this article.
But first, a few words of introduction about this talented artist. Michael Samson was born in New York and was nurtured creatively from an early age by attending a school with an exceptionally strong music program. Interestingly, his first instrument was not piano, but viola, which he took up in third grade when he joined the school orchestra. He cites these early experiences and teachers as formative influences, which played an important role in his deciding to pursue music and become a composer. Around the age of 10, he became enamored with the piano and actually began to teach himself to play by ear. He eventually began formal lessons and developed a love for the classics such as Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, and Satie. His creative flame was also fanned by other art forms like film and theatre. Some of his earliest influences came from movie soundtracks of the 80’s, including “The Never Ending Story” and “Willow,” both of which inspired him deeply at a young age. In addition, growing up in the New York area, Broadway musicals were a part of his cultural milieu that had an impact on him as well.
As he matured into the early 1990’s, he became aware of the emerging contemporary instrumental and new age music genres, which were elemental in shaping his own musical direction. In particular, he cites Yanni as his greatest role model. In his words: “No other artist made such a powerful impact upon me as Yanni did. If I had to choose any true “influence” on my own music today, well, Yanni would definitely be it!” He goes on to say: “Suzanne Ciani is probably my greatest influence after Yanni. I absolutely adore her music, and have been listening to it since my early teens. Her Pianissimo albums are the staples of my solo piano collection.” He also includes many other artists of this genre as having been influential, such as Enya, David Lanz, and Jim Brickman, to name but a few. However I was fascinated to learn that Michael’s musical affinities are extremely diverse and encompass rock, pop, classical, and more. According to Michael: “My musical tastes vary to such a degree that most people are shocked I can mention both Yanni and Metallica in the same sentence!”
All of which leads to Michael’s own music and creative flow. In his words: “When I write music, it is a process of introspective exploration and self-discovery. In some ways it can seem as if the music is writing itself. I think that as I write, the music speaks to me, and I simply speak back. It’s much like a conversation that helps me to explore what I may be feeling at that particular moment in time. As the music takes shape, new feelings emerge, ideas surface, and a personal journey beings to develop.” Of his third album, he goes on to say: “Conceptually, Rapture is a more introspective work, attempting to reach the listener on a more spiritual and personal level. The album attempts to capture the very essence of an emotion or state of being, and is therefore more primal and direct in the way that it communicates with the listener.”
This last statement pretty much zeros in on what I feel is a strong point of Michael’s music – its emotional content. Listening to it with eyes closed I was aware of experiencing it more on a feeling level than an intellectual one. As Michael said, his music is “primal and direct” in its conveyance. And I would agree. I found his choice of chord changes, progressions, and melodies to be quite evocative yet presented in a style that is often understated, and by his description, “introspective.” This is music that exudes an elegant simplicity which allows the listener room to intuit its essence and the intention of the composer.
As mentioned, a key descriptive word for Michael’s music is “evocative.” Listening to the first song, the title track, I was drawn in by the feeling that arose within me as it unfolded. On a composition entitled “The Life Before Us,” rolling arpeggios on the left hand provide momentum as the right hand traces a delicate melody that for me exuded an air of hopefulness. On “Emerald Sea,” a more pensive piece that echoes the influence of Satie, the power of perseverance is referenced in Michael’s poetry that describe this track – in an excerpt from the liner notes: “If I lost sight of the path I FOUND MY WAY BACK… When others turned away I KEPT THE FAITH…” This sense of being drawn forward also resonated for me in a track entitled “The Calling,” something I’m sure that many on the spiritual path can relate to. One piece in particular that I thought would be a perfect movie soundtrack is “Forever Home,” with its gentle yet dramatic ambience creating a cinematic feel that was perhaps inspired by Michael’s love of film and music. Of this track he writes: “There’s a place inside all of us. Deep within and secret… We take this place within us, all the days of our lives. We carry it, and it carries us…”
An element I was aware of in a number of Michael’s compositions is romanticism, and particularly in the appropriately titled “Amor.” This heartfelt piece unfolds tenderly in several movements and reminded me at times of the works of fellow pianist Suzanne Ciani. The album draws to a close with “Haunting Me,” featuring a wistful melody that lingers in the air like the fragrance of a flower. Quoting from the liner notes: “You’re in the sunlight surrounding my shadow. In the raindrops falling upon my face. And in the air that I breathe… You’re a part of me. Sustaining me. Haunting me… Always.”
Reprinting these words here in linear sentence form doesn’t really do them justice compared to the way they are so artistically and graphically arranged in the booklet that accompanies the album. As mentioned earlier, this booklet is a work of art, including the striking cover image by Michael Vincent Manalo. At 24 pages in length it features Michael Samson’s thoughtfully poetic musings on each song along with beautiful color and black & white photography professionally shot on location along the rugged coastline of Washington State, where Michael has been living for the last couple years. It is visually stunning in its glossy finish with a full UV coating that was engineered with a custom made die. A lot of work and creativity went into creating this entire package that represents one integrated piece of artwork along with the music. Samples of the music and photography are available at Michael’s beautifully designed website, along with videos of him performing. Experiencing an artistic statement like this is something that will be missed as we move farther into the realm of downloading individual mp3 tracks from iTunes.
I was glad to have shared the album with a pianist and music teacher friend of mine, who was better able to pick out specific classical music influences that I was not as familiar with. This is not to imply that Rapture is a classical recording by any means, but it could appeal to those with leanings in this direction, as well as listeners who enjoy solo piano in a contemporary instrumental context. Michael Samson is an up and coming composer who is evolving into a promising future in the arts. I’m looking forward to his next release, West Bound which will be his first album featuring other instruments and full orchestration. Stay tuned!