Wet Ink: Smoke, Airs

Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Wet Ink Ensemble describe themselves as a collective, but with a ‘band’ atmosphere. As you would hope, they place an emphasis on improvisation and collaboration accross genres while also fitting more or less comfortably into a recital hall programme (subscribers may disagree). Their collection Smoke, Airs is the latest release on Huddersfield Contemporary Records and features the four electroacoustic pieces they premiered at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Three of the recordings are taken directly from those premiere performances; Charmaine Lee’s Smoke, airs was recorded again in New York the following month with Lee herself joining in as a vocalist.

Lee is as much an improviser as a composer and her piece allows Wet Ink some freedom in how interpret the score’s framework of ’empty’ sounds, building substance out of a texture of partly-voiced breaths, rasps and electronic noises. It’s suitably atmospheric, but with enough substance to raise it above pure ephemera. The sounds are inarticulate while still being expressive, and both Lee and Wet Ink know when to pause and when to change course to stop it sounding entirely like old-school free improv. It can still sound a little self-conscious at times, with Lee’s twittering and trills sometimes filling space as much as expanding the textures: the BBC broadcast of the live premiere was more subdued but allowed the sounds to create a negative space, at the expense of dramatic impact.

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s (un)weave works in a similar vein of acoustics and electronics on the threshold between sound and noise, using free play to make complex details within a predetermined structure. Here, the premise is more adversarial, with the musicians running a gauntlet of electronic ticks, thuds and acoustic interruptions, static and a persistent tinnitus hiss. Then, a third of the way through, they’re obliged to start over. From one moment to the next, there’s a menacing weariness to the sounds, but taken as a whole it feels a little too neatly packaged. What might have worked as a bristling, repressed chaos straining at its restraints comes across instead as just sufficiently tamed. Your attitude may vary.

The two remaining pieces are more straight-up composition. Kristina Wolfe’s A Mere Echo of Aristoxenus is a diptych of acoustic reconstructions of lost sites from ancient Greece. Thankfully, it is not imitative Classical exotica but informed by Wolfe’s research in music archaeology, drawing on Greek accounts of examples of the exploitation of resonance and reverberation. The pieces bear repeated listening: what had, at first, seemed the least interesting music in the set became intriguing. Wolfe allows sonic spaces to open up, using slowness in the first piece to reveal how each sustained sound is disturbed by subtle undercurrents, while in the second the muscians yield to the background, serving to articulate and transform a continuous electroacoustic rumble. Wet Ink’s players switch smoothly from fluid to glacial as needed.

The standout here is Bryn Harrison’s Dead Time, another of his tours de force in messing with your perception of time, sound and memory. It feels like cheating to single this one out as I’ve enthused about Harrison’s music before, but this work continues to refine his techniques into ever more subtle forms of bewidlerment. In Dead Time, Harrison’s slowly unfurling loops and repetitions are more ghostly and dreamlike, with the musicians repeating as though to themselves, lost in suspended thought. At times, it sounded like an echoing loop of tape, then I had to remind myself that it is, in fact, tape. Pre-recorded and live musicians echo each other without it ever being readily clear how the two may be distinguished. Whenever the music somehow pulls itself out of its spiral, you’re not sure if it has moved on or has started over: everything seems the same and yet you recognise nothing. Wet Ink’s musicians play with the same wan, faded quality of a worn-out tape, pushing the muted sounds of Harrison’s earlier music into a dim, muffled dreamworld, consciousness almost smothered.