Personal notes: James Rushford’s Música Callada and See the Welter

Tuesday 6 April 2021

I want to thank James Rushford for putting me on to Mompou in the first place, during a conversation some years back. He said he’d been playing Música Callada a lot and wanted to do it justice, in response to the qualities he kept discovering beneath its unassuming surface. Since that evening I’ve been seeking out recordings of Mompou and learning to appreciate his distinctive qualities even in the most conventional, traditionally folkloristic compositions that usually fall outside my narrow sphere of attention. I’d figured I probably had enough by now but late last year Unseen Worlds released a fine double album of two interpretations by Rushford of Música Callada, as a pianist and as a composer.

The four books of twenty-eight short pieces are late Mompou at his most distilled, but not abstract. The comparison to Satie gets thrown around a lot and besides the obvious impressions of modest dimensions and transparent textures there is also a shared dedication to revealing character and discounting personality, in the same way that a mediaeval altarpiece or folk tune is both personal and anonymous. Rushford’s interpretation, recorded at the fittingly named Akademie Schloss Solitude, captures the rarefied and the rustic. Early on, during the Placide in Book I, the repeated descending line has a hollowness that evokes memories of a school piano or some other slightly wobbly upright. When described, it sounds like a flaw, but hearing it earths the piece in experience and unsolicited nostalgia, showing there is more at work here than simple melancholy charm. The ear becomes alert to the way Rushford builds up a finely graded palette of colours throughout the work’s narrow and muted spectrum. (Almost everything is marked in some nuance of the word ‘slow’; even the solitary Allegretto frequently stands still.) I recall other interpretations which tried to inject moments of dynamic bravura for the sake of contrast, or allowed everything to to drift by as though tastefully veiled.

Rushford’s own composition See the Welter was composed while learning Mompou’s intricacies and is presented here as a counterpart. He describes it as a shadow of Música Callada, not in substance but in remembered experience, that of playing Mompou, an extended essay on touch, balance and timing. The two compositions are comparable in total duration but Rushford’s piece effaces Mompou’s boundaries and matches it with a single, undifferentiated span of single notes spread over seven very slow pages. The broad pace and pauses are filled through pedalling, allowing chords to arise from the severely reduced material. For the pianist, it becomes a prolonged meditation on concentration and the subtlest adjustments in judgement. For the listener, it becomes a gently dizzying exercise in counterpoint that draws you into a labyrinth where melody and direction are always hinted at but never resolve into a single identifiable image. Without ever emulating Mompou, Rushford retrospectively adds the abstract and esoteric element through implication, while also inviting contemplation of Música Callada as a labyrinth itself.