I’ve been working my way through that bundle of CDs from Another Timbre and so far the highlight has been the recording of Vessels for solo piano by Bryn Harrison. It began as a 20-odd minute piece in 2012 and was expanded into a 75-minute piece last year.
Ultimately, what amazes me the most about this piece is how I feel like I’m hearing something completely new, even though it all seems so familiar. Everyone compares it to Morton Feldman’s late music, understandably, and Harrison himself cites Howard Skempton’s music as an inspiration. The subtle contrast between these two composers is revealing. Both composers work with relatively unvarying dynamics and (near) repetitions, the stock in trade of “holy minimalists” like Pärt, Górecki et. al, but to very different effect. Feldman and Skempton’s music avoids conscious expressiveness, but is all the more richly evocative of complex moods through a focus on the presentation of the musical material itself. On the surface, Skempton’s music seems more conventional than Feldman’s, being often more familiar in terms of melody, harmony and scale, but its greater self-effacement achieves a type of “anonymous beauty” which Feldman admired. I once made a crude analogy that if Feldman is like Rothko, then Skempton is like Morandi.
Where does Vessels fit in this? It’s a long, seemingly undifferentiated span of chords that unfurl at a roughly constant pace. Philip Thomas, who plays this piece superbly, “said that when he plays Feldman, he always feels that the music is moving somewhere; through all the repetitions and varying patterns you end up achieving some kind of resolution. But with your piece Philip says that he is almost disturbingly disoriented because the music doesn’t seem to move anywhere at all. Playing it he feels that – for all the notes – he’s still circulating around the same place where he started after 5, 15 or even 50 minutes. Philip was arguing that in that sense Vessels is more radical formally than Feldman.” I heard echoes of Ustvolskaya’s chorales, and the cyclical directionlessness of Hauer’s music.
Harrison himself describes the piece as “disorientating to play” and it is also disorientating to listen to, for several reasons. Vessels messes with your sense of familiarity, the repetitions and recurring chord progressions pass by with the same reassuring presence that trees have in reminding you that you’re still lost in the forest. Have we been here before? Is the music moving somewhere else now, or is my mind playing tricks on me? I’m writing this from memory after hearing it again last night, and I’m starting to wonder whether I actually heard some of the things I want to describe now. If I play it again now I’ll be up all night.
It’s also disorientating if you’re used to Feldman or repetitive minimalist music. The uncertain sense of the music cycling around you has a vertiginous effect. Instead of the sensation of looping, drawing you into the music, the effect is more of a spiralling, equally drawing you in and pushing away. There is no sense of progression or return, only of inexorable drift. This is like one of Hauer’s musical labyrinths blown up to a massive scale. It’s a worthy addition alongside piano works like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Dennis Johnson’s November.
Philip Thomas shows tremendous stamina, playing through this maze for 76 minutes as though it all just came to him naturally. I’m really looking forward to hearing him play it live next Monday.