Some caveats again before I write tonight- Again I was at the recording of some of the music on tonight’s disc, and again I can count the musicians involved to be my friends. Unlike with No Islands though, which I chose not to review recently (but I did ask if anyone else wanted to- no takers?) enough of this particular disc was recorded without me having any connection at all to make it feel easier to write about it. Please feel free to consider my admitted biases when you read my thoughts here then, but this disc is just too wonderful for me to opt out of writing again.
The CD in question is another in the most recent batch of vaguely themed Another Timbre releases. Named Droplets, the disc is credited to Dominic Lash, Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes, Eva-Maria Houben and Taylan Susam. The last two names there, obviously are the composers of three of the four tracks, with Lash performing on all four of the pieces here, playing double bass, and with Farmer (acoustic turntable) and Hughes (chorded zither) on the first three. The first and third tracks then are different trio realisations of Susam’s score For Maaike Schoorel, the second is a group improvisation, and the fourth and final track, clocking in at a little ever half an hour and half the CD’s total running time is a remarkable solo realisation of Houben’s NachtstÃ¼ck for solo bass. I was in attendance for the trio works, which were recorded in Oxford.
The Susam score performed twice by the trio is particularly wonderful in its simplicity. It is a fairly open work that presents the musicians with little clusters of numbers, which they are free to choose from, that dictate the dynamic and frequency that each musician should make a sound of their choosing. The dynamics indicated range from fairly soft to extremely soft, sounds can last no longer than three seconds and Susam, while asking ideally for ‘discrete events’ requests that musicians play together and overlap their particular clusters of sounds as much as possible. So the work will then pull the music made into small swells of extremely quiet sounds, some of them repeating slowly within little windows of time. Its a fascinating score in that it manages to control how the overall feel and shape of the music will sound without ever dictating instrumentation, particular sounds or the number of performers. On the day, the trio made two versions, both of which appear here, but both quite different. For the first realisation, somebody (I forget who but I seem to remember it being quite a spontaneous decision) suggested that instead of ‘playing’ their instruments in a manner that might be expected of them, they each chose to blow directly into them, one way or the other, so creating little clouds of whispery exhalations, each one slightly different as the air was captured differently, the bass sounding unsurprisingly deep, the turntable (which had a contact mic attached I think) quite bright and plasticky, and the zither full of the humming resonance caused by blowing on the strings. The end result is a lovely piece, very simple, extremely elegant and thoroughly human in its realisation.
The second version of For Maaike Schoorel here is equally refined and beautiful, but more familiar sounds are heard, slowly bowed bass notes, the scratch and scrape of items softly rubbed over the turntable and the gentlest of zither tones, from the harsher (yet always very soft) squeal of a glass tumbler being turned on the strings, to other more familiar bowed sounds. This music, typical of the Wandelweiser collective of composition that Susam is a member of alongside Houben has a wonderful stillness to it, and yet the little islands of soft sounds that do appear, as simple as they are, seem to harbour whole worlds of sound and timbre. The lengthy silences that span out between the clusters seemingly cleansing the ears afresh each time.
The trio improvisation is also a very quiet, subdued affair, with Farmer resisting the urge he has often had of late to throw the music off at more disruptive tangents. Things trickle and creak and hum away, and for this track the door to the drama studio space used for the recording was deliberately opened, so the gentle sounds of a leafy part of Oxford on a Sunday afternoon- passing aircraft, distant cars, the wind on the trees, the odd bird creep in and innocently flood the silences in the music. This track stands out from the others here simply through its improvised origins, sounding much freer and obviously open to wider possibilities. The recording, and particularly the mastering here is exceptional, with the external sounds sitting precisely where they belong, distant but present, and the mix between three quite intimate sets of instrumental sounds beautifully balanced.
The recording of Houben’s NachtstÃ¼ck then, is something else again. This piece is very lovely in itself, a kind of slow meditation on the double bass perhaps, collections of softly bowed notes in small groups separated by lengthy silences. I have heard Dominic Lash perform the piece a couple of times, the most recent in Glasgow but a little earlier last year at an intimate performance given in the conservatory of his Oxford home, an event that had a strong impact upon me and which I wrote about here. Simon Reynell was also at this performance, and was moved enough by the mix of Dom’s playing with the sound of rain and wind bustling around the small glass conservatory to suggest that Lash record a version of it outdoors, which the pair set out to do in September last year, in a small wood in rural Derbyshire.
Right from the outset of this wonderful recording it is clear that the elements are determined to play a part in the recording. The wind roaring in the trees above and around bursts into the piece and remains present throughout. The bass has again been captured beautifully though, and when its little group soy harmonic clusters appear they are always clear, often competing with the weather, and particularly after a few minutes when the heavens open and rain hammers down, but always fully present. So Lash stood in the pouring rain and continued to play this extremely demanding half-hour long piece. On the recording we hear the bass, the wind and rain in the trees, and the rain splattering the floor all around, hitting the bass, interfering a little with the microphones but not enough to spoil the enjoyment of the recording. Also present are birds twittering, despite the inclement weather, aircraft passing, the horns and roars of nearby passing trains, insects buzzing close to microphones and, quite wonderfully, the occasional calls of nearby sheep. We often hear the sound of wind, rain and nature layered together with separate recordings of instrumental sounds on CDs these days, probably far too often, but very rarely do the sounds exist together in the same recording naturally. This version of NachtstÃ¼ck then becomes a collaboration between the composer, the musician and the environment, which in theory every recording of the piece will be, but here the environment really makes its presence felt. Its a stunning work, Â superbly composed, studying harmonic and melodic progressions, performed wonderfully, Â and all together a remarkable feat of endurance as much as anything, but also a beautifully complex, detailed mass of sounds, whose presence together feels both absurd and perfect in the same moment. If, like me you just take huge joy from the act of listening, from discovering the sense of place in recordings, from allowing your imagination to run wild this piece, and this album as a whole is an essential purchase. So, so very good indeed.