Fragility and Strength

Saturday 18 May 2024

There’s a paradoxical tension at work in the best of slow, quiet music. While appearing faint and fragile, it maintains resilience through the integrity of its structure, each element supporting the others without reliance on a mass of sonorous substance. The progress made through such a piece from beginning to end may be surefooted even if it appears to be intuitive, or it may be more precarious. The three pieces collected on Nomi Epstein’s album shades suggest a turn in her compositional ideas from the use of pre-mapped patterns which are less heard than felt to plans which are less certain and subject to change. The oldest piece here is Sextet from 2011, which bears the marks of its making most clearly. Epstein’s collaboration with the musicians from whom she wrote the piece resulted in a series of drawings, each made of short lines hastily drawn on top of each other; these were transcribed into sound, producing a seemingly endless succession of short phrases, each consisting of a single sound produced by multiple instruments. Base pitch, harmonisation and instrumentation may vary from one to the next, with the acts of writing, performing and listening each becoming a resource for contemplation. The musicians of the Apartment House ensemble take up the role of interpreters for this recording, bringing an equally fine level of sensitivity to each sound, in part and whole. The 2019 piece sounds (for Berlin) takes a more flexible approach to organising materials and greatly expands the timbral and textural range, even as the number of musicians heard here is reduced to four. The recording, made in Berlin with Christian Kesten (voice), Michiko Ogawa (clarinet), Miako Klein (violin) and Joseph Houston (piano), was the result of a lengthy period of Epstein working and rehearsing with the musicians. The generous time in development can be heard in the exquisitely colourful playing, balanced by exceptional responsiveness and judicious timing between each player. At times, it seems almost as though field recordings are being used, when scrabbling over the violin body, rattling on muted piano keys, whistling and rasping breath sounds are introduced, each appearing suddenly, sounding like natural phenomena far removed from those of the instruments. Kesten sings wordlessly, providing timbral colour at first before unexpectedly emerging into the foreground for some brief moments. The new piece here is shades, a string quartet written for Apartment House last year for this recording. Epstein has used a more open structure here, with the musicians engaged in mutual listening in a way that determines timing as much as timbral balance. It makes the piece more volatile than her earlier works, with less certainty for the listener about where it may ultimately lead. Glissandi are used frequently in some places, eschewed in others, with movement from one to the other never regularly defined. It makes the overall form of the piece more differentiated and changeable than the earlier work, producing greater complexity in the shape and opening up variety in expressiveness which would normally be achieved through resorting to romanticism or other allusions to literature or the theatre.

There is indeed a piece called Distant Music on the new Paul Paccione album Distant Musics, but the title carries an alternate meaning. The five pieces here have much in common with those by other composers working with the slow and quiet these days. What sets them apart on initial hearing is that Paccione is aware of how tenuous the presence of the slow and quiet can be. The opening piece, Exit Music, is a string trio in which single notes are layered over each other in plaintive harmonies until everything recedes to just one pitch whose prolonged persistence implies the piece is ready to peter out before finally regaining some momentum. The trio here (Mira Benjamin, Bridget Carey, Anton Lukoszevieze) play without vibrato in a way that manages to suggest the purest of tones in places while still imparting subtle coloration from moment to moment. While listening to other small ensemble pieces like Gridwork and the aforesaid Distant Music I started to wonder if it would be lazy of me to say it resembled Morton Feldman’s music from the mid 1960s, but then I remembered just when Paccione wrote this stuff. The earliest piece here is from 1980, the latest from 1990: truly music from another world. In fact Paccione has cited Feldman pieces from the mid-60s as an important influence, but this is a rare example of music that is now being heard as new today where making a Feldman reference is directly pertinent. While the style is familiar to us now, Paccione’s compositions were made at a time where he was required to create a context largely on his own. Influences can be observed: Paccione studied with Harley Gaber (apparently his only student) and listening to Benjamin, Chihiro Ono, Amalia Young and Angharad Davies play Violin it’s hard not to hear Gaber in the striated keening of bowed strings with metal mutes. Subsequent work with Kenneth Gaburo and William Hibbard are cited as formational experiences behind the compositions heard here. Lest you get the impression he’s some West Coast Feldman, minimalism via denatured Zen, I’ll remind you there’s more overt rigor in Paccione’s work: Gridwork has similar brooding, introverted harmonies but precision in timing and clear-cut phrasing, while Distant Music employs a broader palette and cleaner counterpoint. Finally, Nancy Ruffer and Emma Williams play the 1983 flute duet Still Life, hovering between playful and pedantic as they dip in and out of an underlying regular pulse to ring the changes on a gamut of notes, until you suspect they aren’t permutations at all, then suspect it’s a permutation too complex for you to grasp. Or it’s an endless compound melody.