(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)
Of the current batch of another timbre CDs that I’m reviewing, this one seems the most problematic. I’ve raved about Bryn Harrison’s music in the past, but recently I’ve found myself drifting further and further apart from it. With Vessels, an uninterrupted 76-minute magnum opus for solo piano (written for, and played here in one extraordinarily controlled and immaculately articulated take, by Philip Thomas), I’m afraid I totally lose track of what he’s trying to do.
Or rather, I do see what he’s trying to do, but all too transparently. Harrison has always been adept at providing descriptions for his compositional methods, relaying the particular effects he wants to create in the listener, making connections with psychoacoustics, visual arts and his compositional ancestors. To quote from the personal statement (2009) on his website: “Much of my recent compositional output has been largely concerned with the exploration of musical time through the use of recursive musical forms which challenge our perceptions of time and space by viewing the same material from different angles and perspectives. … Exploring high levels of repetition that draw on the pretext that exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself but does change something in the mind that contemplates it, [more recent] works deal explicitly with aspects of duration and memory; near and exact repetition operate in close proximity throughout and provide points of orientation and disorientation for the listener.”
The problem is that while I can appreciate the concept on an intellectual level, and I respect the integrity with which Harrison has followed it through, the music itself has stopped interesting me. Once one of Harrison’s delicate and, it must be said, attractive mobiles has been set up, it quickly stops presenting any listening challenges. Even Feldman – whose music is on the surface at least closest to Harrison’s in terms of its general aesthetic – threw in sudden changes of gear to keep you on your toes. Listening to Vessels, the only question that I find is why; and that’s the least interesting question of all.
The inspiration is Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet, Tendrils, but unlike that piece, whose ‘tonality’ is in a state of constant movement due to its use of continually changing melodic modes, Vessels is trapped in amber. It rotates and catches the light at different angles, but it is static all the same. Skempton holds stasis and movement in delicate tension; Harrison presents stasis in spite of movement. Incidental moments occur: chords, cadences, tiny melodies drift by, side effects of the unfolding process. Always present is the general drift through the same harmonic and registral space. Like tissue floating in water, each moment collapses as soon as you go to touch it. Eventually it becomes too much trouble to try.