Friday 11th MayMay 12, 2012
Knot Invariants is the title of the third album by Helena Gough, the British computer musician/composer who has been a resident of Berlin for the past year or two, though will be moving on again shortly. The album is the result of a project commissioned jointly by the Sound and Music organisation and EMS, its Swedish counterpart that saw Gough engage with the sounds made by the cello. To create the five pieces here Gough took source recordings of two cellists, Anthea Caddy and Anton Lukoszevieze before disappearing into the studio to sculpt, mould and reform these raw materials into the music here.
Now I have long admired Gough’s music, and find it a refreshingly original and vibrant form of composition with the new technologies we have today. For all of the music made with computers in this day and age there are few that sound similar to this. Gough buries herself for months at a time in her raw materials, nudging every element into shape, tweaking every millisecond, really coming to terms with every detail of every sound before setting about them like a potter at her wheel, forming something finite and perfected through traumatic and skilful manipulation. Previous albums have seen field recordings and other found materials going in to the mix, but the cellos here seem to add a new, physical and tactile edge to Gough’s music. Directly dealing with everything that the computer is supposedly not- i.e. an immediate, acoustic, classical instrument with a long tradition, Helena is engaging as much with the limitations, shortcomings of her own choice of instrument as much as its potential. It is very much worth noting that Gough herself began her musical career as a classically trained violinist, so her understanding of plucked and bowed strings was already considerable. It is then, the essence of the cello that she has taken and fed through into these five compositions. In places we hear the unmistakeable sound of the instrument virtually unadorned. Elsewhere, and wrapped all around the more familiar sounds are the processed remains of the cello, sometimes still recognisable, elsewhere little more than digital fossils hinting at what once was there.
I am reminded somewhat of Sebastian Lexer’s piano+ work here, again as an instrument with huge historical baggage is filtered through digital technologies to extend it, but on Knot Invariants Helena Gough has taken the cello out of the immediate equation, reducing it to a couple of names on the liner notes, keeping the spirit and atmosphere of the instrument but re-channeling these into new, previously impossible directions. This is unmistakably and unapologetically computer music. There are the telltale glitches here and there and one or two moments of flashy transformation as a groaning bass string might sudden fly off and become a shrill digital buzz, but for the most part, I found myself actually forgetting both where the source material came from and whatever processes it might have gone through to arrive at its new state. Its only when sitting down to write this review, and explain how the album is put together that I began to consider these issues again. On the whole it became very easy to lose myself in the twists and turns, the knots and shapes of this album without caring where the sounds originated. There is such a sensation of physicality to the music that I can see it form into imaginary sculpted forms, with each shadowy crevice carefully placed, every surface texture richly detailed, and the overall compositions wrapped and twisted back in on themselves, reminders of the source material used for each of the sculptures rearing their heads very often but with enough other, dynamic material in place to hold it all precariously together. Its generally speaking a slow album. Things evolve in little clusters that might suddenly spark off in various directions, but there is no sense of being thrown around on a roller coaster of activity as computer music can often aspire to. It feels composed in all senses of the word, a calm and confident work that betrays a sense of joy Gough probably found in the rich sonorities of the cello. Knot Invariants is great, not only an excellent addition to Gough’s discography, but through being a work formed from such an acute and particular set of sounds it is her most focussed and bold statement yet. On Entr’acte.