"surface forms (repeating)" was a wonderful meeting point (not a compromise) between Harrison and ELISION. The players were in perpetual, rapid motion for the full ten and a half minutes. The dynamic level always stayed low. There was a tremendous tension sustained throughout. And for me, part of the complete focus that it commanded was the continual asking of the question, what is it? The sound world seemed to me to be either microscopic or cosmic in its dimensions. Finally I landed on the image of a tiny nucleus controlling the action of an entire planet of water. The form of the whole is constant and unchanging, but everything within that form is constantly changing. There is a very useful interview with Harrison in the new book edited by James Saunders: The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music. Without quoting too extensively, these couple of sentences about his working process shed some light on the piece I heard on Thursday: "I began to see each bar almost as an area of compression, in which I could subtly contract, expand or in some way distort the rhythms. I would then overlay, combine or link material into longer chains of note values to form whole sections of music or even entire pieces." It was awe-inspiring to watch any one of the players, but there was no way to get away from the fact for more than a moment that they were operating as a collective unit.
A slightly younger British composer also producing interesting work is Bryn Harrison. His new commission Repetitions in Extended Time, a 40-minute work for the committed musicians of ensemble plus-minus, played out his interest in repetition and variation of a palette of deliberately restricted materials, which thus come to seem like the images in the bottom of a kaleidoscope. One is tempted to think of this as Feldmanesque, though, as someone commented to me after the concert, it is perhaps closer to the Italian composer Aldo Clementis sonic world of glinting instrumentation, material in slow but insistent evolution, canons so densely woven one no longer hears the individual lines.
As I listened to Bryn Harrison's portrait concert, I noticed one major similarity with the Malfatti installation from the day before. It is music that insists on losing me. It does untraceable things. Harrison's Repetitions in Extended Time was all the more enigmatic for its four identical beginnings. He called it "a form in search of itself." The sounds traveled in a different type of arc each time, at times moving from points to lines, slowly filling out, or merging on fuzzy unisons. The sound worlds that were explored had both space and depth. It was hard to tell the difference between what I was hearing, what I was remembering, and what I was imagining. As the form searched for itself, it lost me, and I realized that is exactly what I wanted.
Tantalising glimpses of timbres and unidentifiable instruments fade into view, providing some magnificent pitch/timbre ambiguities which quickly disappear again without resolution.
The quietly oscillating, hypnotic surfaces of Bryn Harrison's music attempt to draw the listener into a delicate web of abstract patterns and near repetitions.
At once starkly simple, yet intricately complex, Harrison's latest 40-minute piece is one of his most ambitious projects to date. Created almost as an abstract canvas, the piece draws on Harrison's fascination with the passing of time, allowing the listener to become more and more absorbed in the texture of the music.
Harrison's Five Miniatures also presented music caught between disintegration and rebirth, but in a way that made better use of the multiple-short-movement structure. Essentially each miniature was the same: a ripple of notes that begins, looping with apparent freedom between three voices, until it stops. We are shown the same thing five times. But in reality we can hear that it's not the same: the ripples are each different (do the loops just start in a different phase or is this actually new?). Nor are the processes as free as suspected: the synchronisations at the end of each are too distinct to be accidental. Each miniature is sharply alive at the thin boundaries of its beginning and its ending, but the rest, where the music and the development and the content should be, drifted again and again just out of grasp.
Bryn Harrison uses conventional means to achieve riveting and novel effects. He brought together tiny cut-outs of assorted musical shapes, playing and re-assembling their musical colours time and again- as if they were a kaleidoscope.
The first cycle reminded of nature's sounds at night. Animals and insects came unexpectedly from over here or over there, isolated, in squeaks and croaks of different timbres, with the occasional freakish chorus, soon subsiding. The second cycle took steps towards being contrapuntal: several instruments played wisps of almost-phrases at the same time. In the third cycle, softer and very slightly longer almost-phrases presented themselves as almost-melodies. The last cycle reviewed what had gone before, in the manner of someone slowly and gently turning a multi-coloured glass ball in the palm of his hand. I was enchanted.
Bryn Harrison's "the ground" for ensemble was the most notable debut: a tapestry of swoops and slides that owed a passing debt to Feldman.
The almost ritualized and incredibly subtle Guitar trio aimed to convey transparency, drawing the listener into a gossamer sound-world consisting entirely of harmonics
Contributions by two of the more independent spirits produced the pieces I most enjoyed. Bryn Harrison's Open 1 (first piece after Robert Motherwell) cajoled Sue Knight's viola into producing a subtle sequence of shifting timbres and speeds within a repetitive context.
Bryn Harrison's "the ground" was a perfect palliative and its subdued and controlled texture, in which notes are allowed to breathe, gave the impression of large watercolour brushstrokes.
The music has a feeling of sculpted shape, of tactile sound hewn from a potential world. Time seems to pass slowly and nonlinearly, affording more opportunity to both focus and reflect on the moment. Bryn's work is very much about the nature of a sound, drawing the listener into its heart, with inflective variations infecting his scores on many levels, transforming objects through a subtle altering of perspective.