The minute made mythic
With the March release of The Cormorant II, San Fermin completes the trajectory they set out in October with the release of The Cormorant I. The two-part album charts the course of life from birth to death from the perspective of two interwoven protagonists. The intimate emotional trajectory from youthful innocence to adolescent melancholy to sober reflection teems with mythic resonance enhanced by delicate and precise orchestration which can go from apprehensive to sweeping within the same song.
The Cormorant was written by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the songwriter and bandleader of San Fermin since he began the group after graduating from Yale with a degree in composition and experience working with classical composer Nico Muhly. Ludwig-Leone wrote the album in Ísafjörður in Iceland’s northwestern Westfjords peninsula. The album reflects the feeling of escape from the common tedium of everyday life by stripping away the dull or mundane and focusing on moments that frame and contextualize the rest.
The story begins in “The Cormorant” at the end of life, as “a great black cormorant” visits the protagonist with a request that, “on this morning you will die, but before then you must try to show me what you were.” The cormorant is a bird, rich with symbolism. The inky black seabird is nearly ubiquitous around the world’s coasts. They have been the target of intentional extermination to prevent their imposition on human fishing interests. In Japan, according to author Richard King in his book about cormorants, fishermen have historically trained cormorants to fish. In John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, the author likens Satan perched on a tree looking over Paradise to a cormorant.
Ludwig-Leone takes advantage of the ambiguous role of the mythic bird as the story proceeds to “Cerulean Gardens,” where the male protagonist, portrayed by Allen Tate’s rich baritone voice, asks, “Tell me father did I do it right? Where did I go wrong again?” The album provides more questions than answers, as the characters’ perspectives wind around each other.
The Cormorant I concludes with “The Myth” told by the female protagonist—variously voiced throughout the album by Claire Wellin, Karlie Bruce, Samia Finnerty and Sarah Pedinotti—returning to the cormorant portending death. “When the seabirds come…” she sings, “it’ll be alright.”
Feelings of doubt and isolation pervade the first part of the album, but the second part is noticeably livelier as the characters’ self-reflection matures. “Why must we go over your melancholy sins?” the female protagonist asks in “Do Less.”
The album features—In addition to typical instrumentation—saxophone, oboe, harp and a string quartet. Ludwig-Leone uses his classical training to explore available textures and sounds without weighing down any of the songs. The vocals soar above the music and elevate the poetic lyrics. The characters give shape to the story, but Ludwig-Leone is equally adept at letting the instruments tell the story. The album concludes with the instrumental “Tunnel Mt.,” maintaining the ambiguity the album started with.
Ludwig-Leone is a strong composer and storyteller. The Cormorant is ambitious in its scope, attempting to tell the story of a life, but Ludwig-Leone is up to the challenge, using everything at his disposal to deliver a unique album of vast scope and intimate detail.