If you were to write Odysseus and Penelope in stardust and read it aloud, you’d be pressing play on Startide, the ten-track epic composed by Philadelphia-based Keegan Tawa. The album, which was just released on April 2, is intended to be listened to without pause. Songs flow from one to the other, leading the listener through a choral epic of two lovers separated by time and space as the main character, sung by independent Philly artist Sophie Coran, leaves her lover behind to embark on a journey through the galaxy. The two-year project is concerted by more than a dozen musicians coming from wildly unique backgrounds: Tawa himself on piano, duduk, and saxophone; Logan Roth on keys; Dan Kessel on cello; Chris Castellos on french horn; Jack Zeferes on electric bass; Qin Qian on Erhu; Luna Mae with crystal bowls; and Elizabeth Steiner on the harp.
“The artists on the album are all people I admire as both musicians and, in many cases, as friends. I will never forget the first time I saw Sophie perform at Plays & Players theater, years ago, and how she made me tear up on stage with her ballad, ‘Permission,’” Tawa said. “Logan Roth is a member of one of my absolute favorite bands [Trap Rabbit] … Everyone on the record…seemed to be just precisely the right fit for a certain moment on Startide as I was writing it.”
From its composition to the cosmic story and the illustrated artwork, every aspect of this album was meticulously employed by Tawa. In comparison to the collective of musicians, it’s the less obvious collaboration: a showcase of all the moving interests within Tawa’s life: the story setting from a life-long interest in space exploration; the lyrics, co-written with Myles Billard, from a passion for storytelling; and the album art drawn from his love of comic books.
“[Artist] Ana Novaes took my story and my sketches and created something far more symbolic, sensitive, and unexpected. She had a lot of questions and input about the story and even made some impacts to it, in little ways here and there. Instead of something like a session musician just playing a part, she became more of a collaborator, and I think that her comic strip really enhances the experience of the album.”
Startide opens its title track with raw piano and airy electronics that usher in a plea from Coran’s character as she grapples with her decision to leave the earth and her lover along with it. A somber tone reflects the uncertainty of our protagonist’s decision as synth builds into an overwhelming movement of drum and bass. The wall emotion presses onward until breaking into the cool trance beats of “In Flight.” The dancy pick-up signals a decision has been made, and the adventure must begin. Unearthly textures sink in as the lyrics confirm liftoff, “Suddenly, I awake to see a world that feels far from me.”
If “In Flight” is the takeoff, then “Fantasy Sidereal” is the ethereal bridge that breaks through the Earth’s ozone. The music pulsates and drops into the twilight key playing of Roth and is cradled by fervent swings of Tawa’s saxophone; the notes hang suspended in zero gravity. “Fantasy Sidereal” is the first of multiple short instrumental interludes, each signaling a scene change throughout the unfolding three-act story.
Upon reaching “The Moon,” the story actually shifts back to Earth. For the first time, listeners hear from the lover left behind’s point of view, sung by Zach Kramer, whom Tawa has known since their high school days in band. Desperate for his lover’s return, he repeats, “Am I coming through to you?” before folding back into the opening beat of the track.
With a veil of harmonizing female vocals, the story pans back to our protagonist, and the music picks up into “Siren’s Call.” Tawa’s Moog lays on the bass, ripping open a void to deep outer space. Harp trickles in, providing sci-fi sounds of sprinkling fairy dust from above, or pulling back a curtain to the unknown. Behind it, the building momentum in this track comes to the surface; listening, I can see our protagonist’s rocket streaking through space with stars passing by at light speed. Just as quickly as its acceleration, “Superlight Overture” flattens into piano and string. This ebb and flow presses onward until our touchdown into “The Stars Watched,” where the mood poignantly shifts.
Piano sets the mood over electronic beats, and Coran’s vocals bring the song to a full head. The song is moving—hopeful, yet melancholy, as if she is “picking up the pieces” and coming to terms with the reality of her journey. Piano ushers in the final track of Startide, “On Silver Shoes.” For its length, it’s packed with waves of emotion: warm, romantic, somber, at peace. I believe the true ending to Startide’s story is left up to each listener’s interpretation, but with that being said, this could easily be the soundtrack to some black-and-white French film where the girl gets into the cab, never to be seen again.
“Since as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with outer space and wanted to be an astronaut. To me, science fiction isn’t really about spaceships and laser guns or futuristic spectacle (though those things are all cool, of course); science fiction is about pushing upward and outward against the boundaries of what makes us human.
“It’s about asking the hard questions, about putting people up against the wildest extremes our universe has to offer and watching how things break down—what falls away and what remains. It demands we give ourselves and our precepts a hard and sometimes uncomfortable look,” Tawa explained.
You can listen to Startide anywhere music is streamed.