Sometimes the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” applies to a collection of emotionally impactful, intimately and passionately expressive music as well. As on Brian Hagen’s previous album You’re The One, the cover image of Portraits, his richly impressionistic, wonderfully melodic, at times tenderly reflective but just as often sweetly charming and whimsical new release, features a traditionally romantic cover image.
No matter that the image on the earlier set was a bright graphic image design (of a couple silhouetted against the sun) and the new one is a softer lit real life image of a couple dancing closely before a brightly lit tree. Both convey intimate love between two people – and so the listeners might pre-judge Hagen’s work as reflective of a concept of traditional sounding love songs.
Blissfully, this lovely but simple idea is just one aspect of Portrait’s immersive, powerfully building narrative over Hagen’s generous sweep of 15 tracks. From the opening track, the bright, lyrical, free-flowing (and perfectly titled!) lead single “Iridescence” through the heartfelt and optimistic closer “The Peace Within,” the set offers a full-circle journey rooted in people’s relationships – only not limited to those with other people, but also with, as Hagen says, “with various types of events they experience and how they deal with them.” His unique process of creating individual pieces included using chord progressions that he knew from other pieces as springboards for new melodies and rhythms.
Epic solo piano recordings like Portraits are often best experienced as a singular long listen rather than, as typical of our playlist oriented culture, picking out a few favorites from the bunch and enjoying them over and over. While of course there are standout tracks – my personal go-to’s on repeat are the sweetly romantic “A Time For Love” and the lovely, reflective softly lit mood setters “Forever Love” and “After the Rain,” a straight-through listen allows you to connect with Hagen’s unique sequencing, starting with emotionally lighter pieces at the beginning and end (e.g. “Garden Duet,” “You Are My Everything,” “Starlight Dance”) with the darker, haunting gems (e.g. “Regrets,” “The Love We Had, The Love We Lost”) in the middle. You don’t need to know his methodology to enjoy the fascinating adventure – and in fact some might choose to simply use Hagen’s beautiful composition s and performances as soundtracks to the happenings in their own lives. But to me, his insight makes Portraits all the more fascinating.
“As I made decisions about the sequence,” Hagen says, “I realized that if there is an implied narrative, it is loosely based on author Joseph Campbell’s theory of ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ That describes a character who starts out as somewhat of a naïve, innocent type and encounters many new and different experiences – at first exciting, then of danger and peril. The character eventually overcomes the difficult times and emerges into the light a changed person.”
Likewise, in the promo materials, the pianist cites his various inspirations for the songs on Portraits, whose ultimate purpose is to “express thoughts, feelings and situations that most everyone can relate to fairly well.” Some, he says, have their origins in harmonic chordal progressions he found interesting. Others like uplifting, elegantly moving “Reunion,” have their source in unique lucid dreams he has had. In that one, his subconscious mind took him back to the front lawn of his high school, to a picnic where he was surrounded by people – both living and dead in real life – having a joyous gathering. He engaged with many of them during this reunion of old friends, and everyone was glad to see him again. After waking from “one of the most pleasant dreams I have ever experienced”, he wanted to remember the main melodic theme and so wrote it out immediately.
For fans who have been following Hagen’s career since his 2013 classical-oriented debut Reflections, a key aspect of Portraits is its showcase of his growth and confidence as a composer and artist. For his previous albums, he often used melodies he had composed earlier in his life, so as to rescue them from being forever lost and overlooked. Portraits contains only songs penned since 2019, all of which take a balanced approach between commercial form (such as duration and structure) and a full expression of the emotional intent. He cites the lilting, wistful “Homage” as an example of this, paying tribute to the many people who have inspired his musical journey over the years.
Another important element to note is the fact that Portraits is the first album where Hagen doesn’t use renowned classical pieces to round out his set list. Those were certainly magnificent, but there’s something to be said for an artist so full of creative possibilities that everything they share is their own. Despite all his previous success in the new age genre, this new collection marks his full artistic independence as a pianist/composer.
“Having listened to the album from start to finish,” Hagen says, “I hope that it is something to which listeners can project their own experiences. I believe that the album achieved a sort of emotional flow of lightness and darkness with an ending that feels good. As a result, I wanted the album’s form to flow like the musical equivalent of a walk through an art gallery with various portraits of scenes of life.