Wet Ink: Smoke, Airs

Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Wet Ink Ensemble describe themselves as a collective, but with a ‘band’ atmosphere. As you would hope, they place an emphasis on improvisation and collaboration accross genres while also fitting more or less comfortably into a recital hall programme (subscribers may disagree). Their collection Smoke, Airs is the latest release on Huddersfield Contemporary Records and features the four electroacoustic pieces they premiered at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Three of the recordings are taken directly from those premiere performances; Charmaine Lee’s Smoke, airs was recorded again in New York the following month with Lee herself joining in as a vocalist.

Lee is as much an improviser as a composer and her piece allows Wet Ink some freedom in how interpret the score’s framework of ’empty’ sounds, building substance out of a texture of partly-voiced breaths, rasps and electronic noises. It’s suitably atmospheric, but with enough substance to raise it above pure ephemera. The sounds are inarticulate while still being expressive, and both Lee and Wet Ink know when to pause and when to change course to stop it sounding entirely like old-school free improv. It can still sound a little self-conscious at times, with Lee’s twittering and trills sometimes filling space as much as expanding the textures: the BBC broadcast of the live premiere was more subdued but allowed the sounds to create a negative space, at the expense of dramatic impact.

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s (un)weave works in a similar vein of acoustics and electronics on the threshold between sound and noise, using free play to make complex details within a predetermined structure. Here, the premise is more adversarial, with the musicians running a gauntlet of electronic ticks, thuds and acoustic interruptions, static and a persistent tinnitus hiss. Then, a third of the way through, they’re obliged to start over. From one moment to the next, there’s a menacing weariness to the sounds, but taken as a whole it feels a little too neatly packaged. What might have worked as a bristling, repressed chaos straining at its restraints comes across instead as just sufficiently tamed. Your attitude may vary.

The two remaining pieces are more straight-up composition. Kristina Wolfe’s A Mere Echo of Aristoxenus is a diptych of acoustic reconstructions of lost sites from ancient Greece. Thankfully, it is not imitative Classical exotica but informed by Wolfe’s research in music archaeology, drawing on Greek accounts of examples of the exploitation of resonance and reverberation. The pieces bear repeated listening: what had, at first, seemed the least interesting music in the set became intriguing. Wolfe allows sonic spaces to open up, using slowness in the first piece to reveal how each sustained sound is disturbed by subtle undercurrents, while in the second the muscians yield to the background, serving to articulate and transform a continuous electroacoustic rumble. Wet Ink’s players switch smoothly from fluid to glacial as needed.

The standout here is Bryn Harrison’s Dead Time, another of his tours de force in messing with your perception of time, sound and memory. It feels like cheating to single this one out as I’ve enthused about Harrison’s music before, but this work continues to refine his techniques into ever more subtle forms of bewidlerment. In Dead Time, Harrison’s slowly unfurling loops and repetitions are more ghostly and dreamlike, with the musicians repeating as though to themselves, lost in suspended thought. At times, it sounded like an echoing loop of tape, then I had to remind myself that it is, in fact, tape. Pre-recorded and live musicians echo each other without it ever being readily clear how the two may be distinguished. Whenever the music somehow pulls itself out of its spiral, you’re not sure if it has moved on or has started over: everything seems the same and yet you recognise nothing. Wet Ink’s musicians play with the same wan, faded quality of a worn-out tape, pushing the muted sounds of Harrison’s earlier music into a dim, muffled dreamworld, consciousness almost smothered.

Violin+1: Bryn Harrison and Linda Catlin Smith

Monday 29 August 2016

First, I have to say that I had Linda Catlin Smith all wrong.

A couple of months ago Another Timbre released four CDs under the general title ‘Violin+1’: four violinists, each in duet with a different type of musician. Two of the discs are of composed works, the other two are jointly composed between the musicians through improvisation. Violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and pianist Mark Knoop play a new work by Bryn Harrison, Receiving the Approaching Memory. I raved about Harrison’s monumental piano piece Vessels a couple of years ago, hearing it live and on CD. At the time I made the inevitable comparison to Morton Feldman’s late works, but noted significant differences. Unlike Feldman’s carpet-inspired patterns, Vessels was more like a vast labyrinth, beguiling in the way Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Josef Matthias Hauer can be.

Receiving the Approaching Memory takes these aspects of Vessels and somehow makes them more subtle. The scale of the piece is less intimidating – scarcely more than half the length of Vessels and broken into five movements instead of a single, relentless span. The surface resemblance to Feldman is closer, like his last orchestral works: Harrison takes up a musical element and, rather than develop it, gently turns it from side to side, like the facets of a crystal catching the light. Any listener lulled by this apparent familiarity may not even notice that they are slowly becoming disoriented. As each new movement begins, the mystery deepens. Have we heard this part before? Did the last movement change at all, really? Are we starting over from the same place, or will we end up where the last movement ended, only not to remember it when we arrive? Does each movement differ at all? Which movement are we up to? The musicians make the music float, as though without any physical reference for the listener to hold on to.

Linda Catlin Smith seemed to be a composer a little bit outside the usual sound-world of Another Timbre. What little I’d heard of her music up until now showed influences of folk music, particularly of traditions from North America. Based on that, I’d lazily pigeonholed her with the current generation of American composers who have found commercial success through exploiting a ‘vernacular’ of a steady pulse and conventional harmony. This was unfair of me. Dirt Road, a lengthy set of 15 movements for violin and percussion, was written 10 years ago but is making a wider impression only now.

The title itself suggested an appeal to folksy authenticity that has been fashionable lately, in music as much as anywhere, and has already started to grate as much as the lumberjack shirt on an artisanal barista. Listening to the disc with that mindset becomes an astonishing revelation. The first movement is minimal, a violin drone supplemented with bass drum and occasional flourishes of vibraphone. The second suggests a folk influence, modal patterns to slow and brief to be considered full melodies. The pairing of instruments is peculiar, violin with percussionist, often on mallet instruments with occasional drum or cymbal. The first time I listened, the music went from pleasant, to strange, to captivating – it’s beautiful in a way that the listener can never settle into and take for granted.

Each new movement opens up a new perspective on the whole, returning to ideas heard before and presenting them in a new way, introducing a twist, opening up a new set of sounds that casts different light on what was heard before. Some movements can be quietly lyrical, others severely minimal, yet the work holds together as a unified experience, more than the sum of its parts. There’s a complexity of musical thinking going on here, belied by the simplicity of technique.

Violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick play with a richly detailed grain to their sound, with edges just rough enough to give predominance to the physical sounds of the instruments that are so important to making the music work. Each moves effortlessly between foreground and background when needed. This CD has deservedly been getting a lot of attention. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes, “Smith’s time has, finally, come.”

After “Vessels”

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Last night I got to see Philip Thomas play Bryn Harrison’s Vessels live, at Cafe Oto. As implied last time, I hadn’t re-listened to the piece on CD prior to the gig. I now need to make some additional comments.

The first surprise, before the piece started, was that the piece is more thoroughly notated than I thought: a dense hedge of changing meters, irregular rhythms and tuplets, all on a single treble stave throughout. No wonder the pianist finds it disorientating. As in Feldman’s later scores, Vessels uses precise notation to produce ambiguous results, so that events seems to drift by without any sense of a rhythmic pulse underneath. The comparisons to Feldman’s music keep coming up, so here are some more important differences. Feldman used irregular rhythms to set his sounds in surrounding silence; his music is episodic, switching arbitrarily between contrasting sets of sounds. Harrison’s piece allows for no breathing space and never deviates from its initial palette of sounds and texture, which seems even more exhausting than a Feldman work of comparable scale. (The very late works for orchestra are a significant exception.) The entire work barely covers more than three octaves of the piano’s range.

The scale of the piece has an insidious effect on the listener. After a while you get used to it, become immersed in it, like an aural bath, but through sheer persistence it unnerves and captures your attention again, as you try to figure out if it has changed.

It’s remarkable how short many of the repeated passages are. The piece frequently loops on itself for a while, but the harmonic ambiguity and unfocused rhythms make it very difficult to detect where each loop begins and ends, if in fact it is repeating at all. With further analysis the ingenious construction would become more intelligible, but by that time the indelible impression of its first hearing has already been made.

Witnessing Thomas perform the piece in person, as beautifully and seemingly effortless as on record, impressed on me further what an achievement it is. Strangely, it seemed to be over too soon.

Bryn Harrison’s “Vessels”

Thursday 1 May 2014

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.