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.

More from the guitar: Sarah Hennies, d’incise, Cristián Alvear, Clara de Asís

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Earlier in the year I raved about Cristián Alvear’s album of Jürg Frey’s music for guitar. I’ve now been sent two new recordings by Alvear, again both for solo guitar. On the Frey album, I noticed Alvear’s intense concentration and colouration he brings to the sound of unamplified, classical guitar. These two new releases intensify that effect even further.

Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) is a 40-minute work for guitar by the Swiss composer d’incise. Like the Frey album, this has also been released on Another Timbre. It’s a curious piece, simultaneously very loose and tightly constrained. In his interview on the Another Timbre site d’incise mentions his unfamiliarity with the instrument. The score calls for the instrument’s sound to be modified in some way, yet also puts the onus on the performer to become familiar with recordings of other music: Machaut, various folk musics, Neil Young. Any resemblance to this music in the composition is detectable only from a highly distilled understanding of technique. The guitarist works through a series of small, closely-observed effects. The material is carefully limited and how it is used is left open to some interpretation. It’s casually thorough in its exploration of intonation, tone colour and external affects, in the way that Morton Feldman’s music is in exploring the space between semitones.

There’s a second recording of this piece, available as a free download through Insub. Clara de Asís plays Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) on an electric guitar. Both versions are clearly the same piece, with similar overall shape and disposition of material. When examined more closely, comparison of the two reveals striking differences, followed by unexpected similarities. Asís plays with sensitivity and imagination equal to Alvear, each finding ways to evoke sounds from their respective instruments that are obviously different in origin yet still clearly alike in their understanding of the music. As an example, Asís’ version ends with the quietest gestures set in a thin halo of feedback hum. Alvear ends in an equally muted way, allowing the acoustic instrument’s natural resonance to come to the foreground. If you like the Asís version, you’ll want to hear how Alvear interprets it, too.

The Mappa label “from a God‑forsaken place on south of Slovakia” has released another Cristián Alvear recording, of Sarah Hennies’ Orienting Response. This is another 40-minute solo workout, written for Alvear. It’s available as a download or, for some reason, a cassette in a wooden box. I don’t get the thing with cassettes these days, it seems so conspicuously materialistic. I’m sure being Slovakian isn’t an excuse.

The cassette format does mean, however, that you get two 42-minute performances of the one piece. It took me a while to work this out. It also took me a couple of listens to figure out that the piece was for solo acoustic guitar (I’d somehow got into my head it was a duo with harp) and the guitar was unmodified (I was getting confused with the d’incise). It was obviously thus my own fault for not being too impressed after the first listen: an unconnected sequence of dry, repetitious exercises. After correcting my mistakes and realising that I’d been hearing things that weren’t actually in the recording, I knew it needed to be listened to more closely.

In her notes, Hennies mentions attempting “the same kind of focus and intensity I have created with percussion instruments using an instrument (the nylon stringed guitar) that is naturally not well-equipped to produce the type of timbres or high dynamic levels that I have worked with up to this point.” Each of the six sections specifies a rigorous playing technique: “Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.” Alvear’s eminently well-suited for this challenge; it makes the Frey and d’incise seem fanciful.

Strange paradox at work here: you’d expect that the better you are at playing it, the less interesting it would get. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The substance of the piece is sufficiently stark that otherwise negligible differences become the subject of the music, much in the way that some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces work. The two performances here, seemingly identical at first, are in fact very close but quite distinct in detail and structural proportions. The score notes that “all timings and tempi are approximate and flexible”; I’m wondering how Alvear achieved this in performance.