Newton Armstrong, Judith Hamann: go out, collapse

Monday 1 February 2021

Until recently I’d mostly known Newton Armstrong’s work only through his technological contributions to other people’s music, but thankfully that’s been changing lately. The way to go out is a solo release through Another Timbre, with three of his compositions for live musicians and electronics. I’d heard the premiere of A line alongside itself at Music We’d Like to Hear a couple of years ago but didn’t say much about it at the time. A work for cellist Séverine Ballon, echoing her instrument around gentle electronics, it felt a little tentative inside the church at the gig, dwelling in the space without filling it. This recording, made shortly before the public peformance, can seem too restrained in one listening and then much more revealing and emergent on another hearing, so a lot seems to depend on my mood. The musical material is a lot more stripped back than in the two earlier pieces on the disc, suggesting that Armstrong is looking at ways of further refining his language and his compositional techniques to work with his electronics. He’s explained that “all of these pieces are made from deformed, non-strict canons” and it’s not a process that is obvious to the listener, although you do detect the recursiveness and tail-chasing in the earlier ensemble pieces. (The Hunters and Collectors reference is further obscured.) Mark Knoop conducts the Plus Minus Ensemble for the two chamber works that bookend A line alongside itself, each with melismatic lines that become intricate without ever feeling precise. Armstrong’s electronics are not immediately noticeable, other than through blurring and refracting the ensemble’s playing; less a dazzling hall of mirrors, more an intriguing shimmer of heat haze. Someone on social media described all three as “lush”, which seemed odd at first but made sense as I thought it over, even for the long line of the cello piece.

Speaking of people getting long-deserved exposure for their own compositions, I make this to be the fifth release by Judith Hamann over the past year, adding to her previous total of, well, none. Created during her attenuated residency/lockdown on Suomenlinna in Finland last year, Days Collapse builds on her recent work combining her cello with field recordings and electronics. The five tracks form a suite of nearly fifty minutes, but it’s easy to take in at a single sitting. Each track’s pacing and changes in timbre, distinct without being jarring, seems to allow things to happen in their own time while always drawing the listener further into its world. Besides its length, it’s a more complex work than her previously-heard montages and brings the darker shades of her music to the fore. The field recordings are less identifiable, unable to be reconciled to a specific time or place outside the imagination; sustained sounds start as bowing and mutate into voice, wind and electrical hum, an abstracted keening. By the time you’re halfway through you’re wondering when you last heard the cello, as music-making falls away to silences and less structured sounds. If the instrument is present in these moments, then the sounds are deeply internalised, scraping and rumbling inside the body, hollow resonance. Its sombre, distressed inarticulacy makes it one of the most eloquent musical statements to date on the past year’s pandemic and personal loss, reflecting on how to continue when each facet of life has been diminished, each opportunity more indeliby circumscribed.

Judith Hamann: Shaking Studies, Music for Cello and Humming

Wednesday 28 October 2020

You wait for ages, then four come along at once. After starting the month with Judith Hamann’s Peaks and Portals at the start of the month, I’m ending with her two promised solo releases on Blank Forms Editions: one LP and one CD. (You can get a download, too.) On Shaking Studies, Hamann presents three of her works for solo cello. I’ve heard her play earlier iterations of this music live on a couple of occasions over the years and it’s great to hear how she has developed these pieces for recording. Her studies in using shaking as a technique (usually while playing standing, inducing tremors in both bow and cello) have evolved into a thorough exploration of complex tones, timbres and layering of sound. In the opening short piece she sends her bow rasping across the strings on the bridge, with a juddering sound that oscillates between tremolo and spiccato, changing pressure, speed and position to weave a constant flux between overtones and noise, between broken and constant sounds. The longer Pulse Study, divided into two parts, sublimates this tremor into the fabric of Hamann’s playing, with the constant pulsations emerging like a beating frequency from an interplay of bowed intervals, sometimes in the topmost pitch range, at other times below.. The pulses draw attention to the richness of harmonic colour Hamann draws out of the instrument, always changing without following any obvious process or formula. As an epilogue, she introduces a heterogeneous element, bowing low double stops over documentary recordings of various pulsating sounds.

Music for Cello and Humming collects two more of Hamann’s pieces, coupled with works for solo cello and electronics by Anthony Pateras and Sarah Hennies. A longer but equally strong collection, Hamann’s pieces combine cello with voice, as promised in the title. The opening Study merges bowed intervals with voice in a series of harmonised interference patterns. The direct use of the musical materials, with a confident resistance to adding ornamentation, is echoed by its electronic counterpart in the following piece, Anthony Pateras’ Down to Dust. This track is taken from the overwhelming box set of Pateras’ music released last year and is an exemplar of his recent compositions, making bold gestures which retain their forcefulness without resorting to bravado or pyrotechnics. (Need to talk more about Pateras’ stuff soon.) Hamann’s Humming Suite is a work commensurate with her Pulse Study: here her voice acts as the agitating factor to the cello, with the two acting as counterparts. Besides the technique, the musical difference is that Humming Suite is a more languid, contemplative work, albeit with its occasional reveries punctuated by more fraught, incongruous moments. It seems to owe something to the slightly earlier work she recorded, which appears last here. Sarah Hennies’ Loss starts out in a reassuringly austere manner, with Hamman humming repeated unisons with her cello. Things then get more complicated. The cello here is higher pitched than before, more nasal, and Hamann’s humming sometimes falters. Cello also falters; there are pauses, isolated plucked notes and finally a slackening of strings into frail subsonics. The humming breaks away to reveal more of the human behind the sound, the voice strains, breath catches, develops a cough that won’t fully go away. It’s a disturbing, confronting piece that passes from its initial pristine surface into rawer acts of internal fragility, where affectation and vulnerability are forced to coexist and gestures may be interpreted as a confusion of defiance and despair.

Judith Hamann: Peaks and Portals

Thursday 1 October 2020

I’ve enjoyed cellist Judith Hamann’s music for years now, both in solo live shows and as part of Golden Fur. We’re finally getting more recordings out in public, with more on the way soon, it seems. The upcoming releases from Blank Forms focus on her cello playing, but the new Black Truffle album Peaks is an unexpected deviation into the unknown. It starts normally enough with Hamann playing characteristic sustained tones. There’s faint ambient noise in the background, which by now we recognise as the sounds of a lockdown home recording (it is not). The cello’s strings extend into a softly keening electronic drone; more prominent voices emerge from the echoes. Soon, the cello is lost altogether in hazy montage of locations, events and people, as though half-recalled in reverie. Sounds can be identified but their presence remains elusive as each slips in and out of perception. Hamann’s art has left her travelling the world for the past few years without ever settling down into a place of her own. Peaks is a powerfully evocative and poignant reflection of life in flux, made all the more compelling by never lapsing into the medium’s clichés in content or technique.

Hamann’s collaboration with Marja Ahti on Takuroku, Portals, could be a companion piece to Peaks. Each currently resident in Finland but forced to work remotely, the two musicians fashioned a dialogue of their respective crafts. Ahti’s skill at constructing soundscapes with a strong sense of place is decentred here, with Hamann adding new musical and physical perspectives. With Ahti, the sonic images and narrative are more distinct, but it’s a double image and the narrative becomes a soft but insistent dtory of displacement. These are two of the most haunting works to come out of this year’s isolation, particularly because we know from their circumstances they will continue to speak to our anxieties in other times to come.

Séverine Ballon: inconnaissance

Monday 8 October 2018

I went to four unrelated cello gigs in about a week, each demonstrating some a aspect of playing and composing for the instrument. 840’s most recent gig at St James’, Islington focused on cellist (and composer) Anton Lukoszevieze, aided by pianist (and composer) Alex Nikiporenko. Some of these pieces are becoming old standards now, such as Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar and Laurence Crane’s Raimondas Rumsas; amongst the new work, the premiere of Christian Wolff’s six Small Pieces for Cellist was the highlight. Any new work by Wolff in the fruitful late phase of his career deserves our thanks, and the dedicatee Lukoszevieze brought out much more than you could imagine from a composer whose music so often looks unprepossessing on paper. The pieces alternated between full and open notation, with Lukoszevieze seizing the opportunity to add variations in attack and touch to Wolff’s discontinuous phrases, creating a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie.

The cello is a big and tactile instrument, which makes it ideal for observing technique, both in performance and in composition. The following weekend I was at the Old Dentist in Clapton, taking in the venue’s traditional BYO over the fire in the backyard before crouching in the cramped front room of the stripped terrace house to hear Judith Hamann playing solo again. This was a more focused set than the one I remember from Cafe Oto a while back: a pulse that slowly contracted and expanded, in feeling if not in tempo, as Hamann concentrated on drawing harmonic overtones from her instrument, from the endpin working up to the strings. There was no obvious systematic process at work here, nor anything reductionist or extreme to coax the listener’s attention to a different state: while setting up, she decided to go without any amplification. The cello became a sounding vessel, speaking in its own language of resonant vibrations.

Last Tuesday was the start of 10th season of Kammer Klang at Oto, with co-founder Lucy Railton performing Phill Niblock’s Harm on his 84th birthday. It was a kind of inversion of Hamann’s performance – “It’s loud,” Railton warned the punters, “and dense.” Here the overtones played the instrument, a wall of complex, pulsating colours that shimmered and darkened in ways beyond the solo performer’s full comprehension. In the midst of all this, Railton’s bowing alternately merged and fought with the backing layers of cello (previously recorded by Arne Deforce), a thin streak of oil over churning waters. After repeated tangential brushes with Niblock’s music played live, and hearing the man himself with laptop last month, I think I finally got the true live Niblock experience.

In amongst all this I got invited to the launch of All That Dust, a new record label started by London-based new music performers and producers Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop. We were treated to live performances of excerpts from two of the new releases – cellist Séverine Ballon, and percussionist Håkon Stene playing part of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts 8 – as well as Knoop playing a piano piece by Tim Parkinson, part of a collection sheduled for next year.

I want to get around to all the current releases (three on CD, two download-only) in time. Séverine Ballon’s live set, and her CD inconnaisance, exclusively deals with her own compositions for solo cello. Having long been a skilled interpreter of other people’s music, she has spent the last couple of years developing a set of her own pieces. Witnessed live, you could appreciate the thoughtful placement of sounds paired with the care taken in touch and intonation. There are extended techniques appearing throughout, but used in unobstrusive ways that keep the focus on the sound: pedal tones, bowing behind the bridge, some of the more esoteric harmonics. Colouration from different bowing techniques are foregrounded. As might be expected, the music’s composition is clearly rooted in performance but is much more than a working through of a cellist’s favoured processes, as can so often be the case. The set of tracks on the CD can be heard individually yet clearly work as a suite, with each section presenting a distinct style and soundworld rather than an excerise in a given technique. On disc, the sound is beautifully captured, evoking the same experience of hearing it live at close range.

There’s confidence behind Ballon’s musical thinking, both in execution and in conception. At times, she lets the sound slip away to almost nothing without ever losing its presence, letting details recede and emerge, with contrasts in dynamics and activity that always feel natural. It all makes for a solid musical experience when heard alone, or even in ignorance of the skill required to make it.