Personal notes: James Rushford’s Música Callada and See the Welter

Tuesday 6 April 2021

I want to thank James Rushford for putting me on to Mompou in the first place, during a conversation some years back. He said he’d been playing Música Callada a lot and wanted to do it justice, in response to the qualities he kept discovering beneath its unassuming surface. Since that evening I’ve been seeking out recordings of Mompou and learning to appreciate his distinctive qualities even in the most conventional, traditionally folkloristic compositions that usually fall outside my narrow sphere of attention. I’d figured I probably had enough by now but late last year Unseen Worlds released a fine double album of two interpretations by Rushford of Música Callada, as a pianist and as a composer.

The four books of twenty-eight short pieces are late Mompou at his most distilled, but not abstract. The comparison to Satie gets thrown around a lot and besides the obvious impressions of modest dimensions and transparent textures there is also a shared dedication to revealing character and discounting personality, in the same way that a mediaeval altarpiece or folk tune is both personal and anonymous. Rushford’s interpretation, recorded at the fittingly named Akademie Schloss Solitude, captures the rarefied and the rustic. Early on, during the Placide in Book I, the repeated descending line has a hollowness that evokes memories of a school piano or some other slightly wobbly upright. When described, it sounds like a flaw, but hearing it earths the piece in experience and unsolicited nostalgia, showing there is more at work here than simple melancholy charm. The ear becomes alert to the way Rushford builds up a finely graded palette of colours throughout the work’s narrow and muted spectrum. (Almost everything is marked in some nuance of the word ‘slow’; even the solitary Allegretto frequently stands still.) I recall other interpretations which tried to inject moments of dynamic bravura for the sake of contrast, or allowed everything to to drift by as though tastefully veiled.

Rushford’s own composition See the Welter was composed while learning Mompou’s intricacies and is presented here as a counterpart. He describes it as a shadow of Música Callada, not in substance but in remembered experience, that of playing Mompou, an extended essay on touch, balance and timing. The two compositions are comparable in total duration but Rushford’s piece effaces Mompou’s boundaries and matches it with a single, undifferentiated span of single notes spread over seven very slow pages. The broad pace and pauses are filled through pedalling, allowing chords to arise from the severely reduced material. For the pianist, it becomes a prolonged meditation on concentration and the subtlest adjustments in judgement. For the listener, it becomes a gently dizzying exercise in counterpoint that draws you into a labyrinth where melody and direction are always hinted at but never resolve into a single identifiable image. Without ever emulating Mompou, Rushford retrospectively adds the abstract and esoteric element through implication, while also inviting contemplation of Música Callada as a labyrinth itself.

Lockdown Roundup: Lucy Railton, Melaine Dalibert, James Rushford

Saturday 23 May 2020

Responses to Covid-19 are coming thick and fast now. Quarantined from the wider world, musicians are making music alone, where they can. Cafe Oto, the bold experimental music venue in London, has responded to the enforced downtime by launching Takuroku, a new netlabel dedicated to recordings produced under lockdown. As you might expect, the dominant mood right now is directed by isolation; introspective and melancholy – at least based on the three I’ve listened to so far. (In case I’m seeming more interested in analysis than advocacy, I’d recommend each of these three to the curious.)

Lucy Railton’s Lament in Three Parts adds hidden depths to this emotional state. Her work for solo cello with some additional electronics was improvised on one day in late April, with processing added a couple of days later. The music sounds much more substantial than this description suggests: as an improvisation, it definitely draws upon something that has been stored up for some time. Railton’s recent compositional work has extended beyond her cello into the use of electronics and field recordings. Earlier this year, she presented a sophisticated collaboration with synthesiser pioneer Peter Zinovieff, RFG Inventions for Cello and Computer. Lament distills Railton’s music and moves the focus away from technology: when electronics first appear at the end of the first part, it sounds like amplified bowing adding a further sighing texture to the slow chorale. Part two is a sombre melody that passes almost monophonically for its first half (I’m no expert but it sounds like she’s using Pythagorean intonation). The briefer final part resolves the preceding long line with an otherworldly sheen, the electronics adding just enough to transform the cello into something strange yet still beautiful.

My previous exposure to Melaine Dalibert consists entirely of two solo piano works which I did not like. Un Long Ralentissement is another piano piece, made as a specific response to the pandemic. As before, Dalibert takes an almost obstinately theoretical approach as justification for his carefully placed single tones, but this time it works musically. Preciousness has yielded to tenderness, and the understated rallentando adds a flexibility and flow to this slow music. The process of things slowing down is experienced, not just demonstrated, and there’s a humanising element present in the recording that makes this piece perversely relevant.

I’ve just done James Rushford recently but here’s another solo piece, this time made as a direct result of lockdown. Ouarzazate is a solo performance on a Rhodes electric keyboard. It is thirty-eight goddamn minutes long; almost twice the length of the Railton and Dalibert pieces. The contrast in his approach to the keyboard compared to his organ piece Clerestory is instructive. To work with such a limited timbral palette over such a long, unbroken span of time, you’ve got to be good. Rushford’s playing starts contrapuntally, generously paced enough to open up contemplation yet never lingering, lest momentum be lost to aimless meandering. It keeps the mind guessing with occasional leaps in register and changes in pitch sets, opening up one fork in the path after another.

Lockdown Roundup: James Rushford, Will Guthrie

Sunday 17 May 2020

Musicians everywhere are getting slugged by Covid-19 shutting down venues and travel for months. What can you do? Keep making music. New pieces are going out on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, streaming live on Youtube and wherever. I’ve talked about James Rushford and Will Guthrie each on this site several times before, but not in the capacity as solo composers. Rushford put up two new items on his Bandcamp on 1 May, the second fee-free day on the site this year. Clerestory is a solo organ performance from a gig at Hospitalkirche Stuttgart in 2017. Organ is always impressive, even John Zorn can’t mess it up too badly, but Clerestory is a more enlightening insight into Rushford’s musical thinking. It’s eclectic, but with an attention span that surprises the listener with unexpected connections instead of trying to dazzle with a rollcall of cultural references. Moody ambience yields to imperious bombast; when the sonorites and textures get thornier, the music perversely opens up into something more allusive and enigmatic for the imagination.

Prey Calling started as an installation at MONA FOMA in Tasmania earlier this year. The description of this stereo mixdown is horripilating: “a mashup of vintage synth and whale song, inspired by the story of Greenpeace expeditioners using the Serge modular synthesiser to communicate with humpback whales”. Blessedly, Rushford’s approach is closer to David Tudor’s in Soundings: Ocean Diary than a head shop: a kaleidoscopic array of complex electroacoustic sounds that verge upon whale song, recognising the ocean as a constant flux and not an inert medium. It constantly refreshes itself with the same invention and dynamism as his improvised duets with Joe Talia (see Paper Fault Line for a good, early example).

Percussionist Will Guthrie’s solo piece For Stephane is a bit older, going back to mid-March this year when it was released. I’ve spoken before about his holistic approach to percussion, observing how his performances resemble the curation of an environment of discrete but interrelated objects: an ecological method. This carries over into his work with electronics. For Stephane recalls the gamelan from his Black Truffle release Nist Nah, producing a hazy montage of distant gongs, sustained humming, hissing and rattles, muted recordings and faint radio broadcasts. The fragmented, ephemeral nature of the piece evokes memory, history, curdled nostalgia and remoteness.