Jakob Heinemann: Resonant Ocean and Opacity

Saturday 24 February 2024

It’s taken me a while to get a handle on Jakob Heinemann’s compositions; not that I found it difficult to like, but it’s hard to get a bead on what exactly he’s doing on these two albums. It’s better not to think about that in too much depth, as the sense of each piece seems to come down to Heinemann’s personal taste. There’s at least a vague allusion to autobiography in some of the pieces, but nothing overt enough to read the music as a narrative, making his idiosyncratic approach to mixing instruments with field recordings hard to pin down. Resonant Ocean came out in 2022, collecting four relatively short works. The common theme is place and location, either in the real world as heard through field recordings, or in the abstracted space of the harmonic series. Heinemann proceeds to mix them up, interleaving two solo tape collages with works for small chamber groups. The music acts in response to pitch content from the tapes, only for the recording location to change and answer in counterpoint. This happens both within pieces and between them, across the album. In the collages, Heinemann plays autoharp and double bass alternately against sine tones and field recordings that cut in and out with no obvious motivation. A mournful string trio in harmonic intonation acts as an interlude. The concluding, title work uses bowed double bass, possibly with low sine tones again, to create uncanny electroacoustic sounds from flute and trumpet. The reflectiveness of the structure to these activities, and the undemonstrative nature of Heinemann’s ensemble writing, can’t help but seem melancholy, albeit without becoming emotive. In this way they function, faintly but indelibly, in a manner reminscent of landscapes.

Having warned against analysis, I nevertheless began to think there were some more complex ideas struggling beneath the surface in those four pieces on Resonant Ocean. A year later, Heinemann released Opacity, a large-scale suite for flute, clarinet and cello, with the composer on bass with sundry objects and field recordings. This work was the product of a year of Heinemann playing with the musicians on the recording (Molly Jones, Jeff Kimmel and Ishmael Ali). The close collaboration with the performers, and the creation of a more complex work in multiple sections, consolidates the impressions of the previous album. The latent intellectual restlessness comes forward with greater clarity, even as the harmonic and textural language remains subdued. When ideas about music are jostling around without resolution, it’s better that Opacity makes its complications part of the subject for the listener to grapple with. Hearing it isn’t difficult; understanding it is another matter. Within the various sections of this work, ambient sounds flit in and out of the sound mix behind the musicians, then brief interpolations focus on improvisational percussive sounds. When the ensemble resumes, they’re never quite the same as before, with pitched sounds falling away to tapping and rustling that mimics the field recordings. It took a while to notice that the recordings themselves are as constructed as the musical material, adding another dimension to the quiet conundrum of what we really hear when we think “real” or “artificial”.