CD Reviews

Sarah Hughes- Accidents of Matter or of Space

May 12, 2013


The first release on the very promising new Suppedaneum label in Chicago comes from a friend of mine, Sarah Hughes, so when I say that I think this one of the best things I have heard so far this year you are free to apply the appropriate caveats as you see fit. <<Accidents of Matter or of Space>> consists of a white CD attached to a large (11″x14″) letterpressed card and a similarly sized sheet of text written by Dominic Lash, about the music here. It is at once both beautiful and awkward, but a very nice way to present such a work. The album contains four tracks.  I first heard the first of these, a twenty minute long solo improvisation for zither a few years back, and fell in love with it then. Criggion (after Only) was recorded in a transmission station in Powys, Wales. The station was originally a wartime long wave radio broadcasting site that continued in its secret practices until just a decade ago sending out coded messages to nuclear submarines. It is now disused, partly demolished and the remaining parts in a state of disrepair, yet it has a certain derelict beauty that somehow transmits itself into the music here. Hughes’ use of zither is minimal and spacious. Recorded acoustically, E-bowed tones are frequent throughout the piece, as are scattered plucked notes, smaller bowed sounds and probably tones created by rotating a glass tumbler against the strings, a technique Hughes used around the time of the recording. Also present though, is the room itself. Recorded in a large brick space in the station with a high ceiling, the room clearly acts as its own amplifier, but I am a little unsure as to why so many industrial sounding bangs, crashes and groans seem to fill the room, into which the fragile sounds of the zither blend. The transmission station is some way out in a remote part of a rural location, and it had long stopped operating at the time of the recording, but you would be easily forgiven for thinking that this piece of music was recorded in a working factory of some kind. Wherever the sounds here originate from, its a stunningly beautiful work.  At once both filled with a resonant warmth and a fragility betrayed by the thin slithers of instrumental sound, the piece seems to hang in the air, all of the sounds seemingly existing together and yet not really progressing through or into anything, with neither Hughes’ playing or the sounds of the space ever dominating proceedings over the other.

There then follows three realisations of Hughes’ score (can never exceed unity) by a quintet of musicians of musicians that recorded several tracks for Another Timbre’s Wandelweiser und so eiter box, but do not actually include Hughes amongst their number. The group is made up of Rhodri Davies (harp), Neil Davidson (acoustic guitar), Jane Dickson (piano), Patrick Farmer (electronics) and Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga (zither). The score consists of a very simple set of instructions. One musician is told to play a single tone or sound for a predetermined period, which should be half the length of the realisation. The other four players are then allowed to play however they choose, but the second player can only play for half as long as the first, the third half as long as the second, and so on. The score instructs the musicians to “play freely”.  The three realisations here then each see the musicians swap roles within the work, and each is quite different in subtle ways to the others. In many aspects, the pieces have a strong Wandelweiseresque feel, in that they contain a lot of silence, dictated by the time allowed to the musicians, and the presence of the one sustained tone found in each of the versions. However the actual sounds used here are far from all pretty and unobtrusive. Dirty, gritty electronic splurges burst out of nowhere, grating, faintly metallic sheets hang in places, hammered knocking elsewhere. There is certainly a freedom present in the music, as predetermined by the score, and some real character in the playing, and it is purely the score, and its time restrictions on each musician that gives the piece its spacious feel. This is truly modern, thoughtful and challenging composition that gets the best from improvisors while giving the composer enough of a hold over the structure of the work to dictate an overall scope for how the piece might sound.

All in all the music here is thoroughly rewarding. If Criggion (after Only) is as beautiful as this area of music gets, then the three realisations of (can never exceed unity) betray that beauty by scattering it with brutal surprise, awkward silences and strange collisions. The two works heard here are quite different, both in feel and the way they were constructed, but they also fit together perfectly, complimenting each other as easily as they also sit in confrontation. Only one hundred copies exist. Ensure you don’t miss out on one.

** Please note that in the title line of this review, the opening and closing parenthesis that should be part of the album title have been removed because they cause problems with the html formatting of this page!

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