In Shadows - Ian Wilson (RVRCD82)


One can cast a shadow, one can be shadowed by another or one can be in shadow. In what sense are they perceptible objects or simply effects? Are shadows a passive absence of light or an active, threatening presence?

Seamus Heaney’s poem Anything can happen, a 9/11 elegy from which Across a clear blue sky takes its title, is the opposite of shadow. It has a statuary nature (its original title was ‘Horace and the Thunder’). It’s solid; its transitions and changes, its events and aftermaths all have the balance and integrity of the built. It is a kind of groundedness, indebted to the language and imagery of familiar myths, in which even the greatest calamity can be resolved in time.

In great contrast, Across a clear blue sky emphasises texture and grain, the abrasion of one surface against another. Although he has confronted themes of war and great violence before, Wilson has shown (in works such as Licht/ung, and his fifth and sixth quartets) that he is not interested in simple monuments or tombeaux. Rather than solidity, he seeks the ephemeral, the after-image, casting evocative but unresolved enigmas for the listener to interpret and consider.

The quartet is composed of very limited, very straightforward elements: glissandi, chromatic scales, juddering cross-string chords – elements chosen for their immediate sonic characteristics rather than their intrinsic developmental potential. Wilson even expands his palette to include two FM radios (which are mostly heard as static white noise) and four wind-up drumming toys. There are none of Heaney’s revelations of legend and language here. Wilson’s materials – almost ‘readymades’ – have been so purged of content that juxtaposition, the touching of one surface upon another, is almost all that is left. The different regions of sound are shadow-like: they convey an absence, yet when they touch and intersect they create – like the light sculptures of László Moholy-Nagy – forms, textures, presence.

In re:play the basic thematic material is again of ‘readymade’ origin. In this case, the melodic lines that form the initial basis of each of the work’s three movements were transcribed from the highly stylised, unnaturalistic speech of Anthony Minghella’s film of Samuel Beckett’s Play. Following Beckett’s directions, the three actors speak tonelessly and in a rapid tempo throughout, and this gives rise in Wilson’s piece to a vocabulary of jerking rhythms and concentrated chromatic contours.

This is re:play’s shadow, one that it is little able to control: those speech patterns darken the language of the whole. The piece is written for improvising saxophonist and ensemble, but the notion of freedom is highly restricted: even the improvisations are drawn back to those same nervous elements.

In many ways, re:play is about this dialogue between freedom and restriction, the individual and the group (a theme, too, of Play). This extends not only to the relationship between soloist and ensemble, but also that between the jazz and classical worlds that this piece sits between. Even the instrumentation – string quartet plus a trio of sax, piano and double bass – articulates that dialogue, and much of the piece can be heard as a series of attempts to integrate the two, and the productive conversations that emerge as a result.

The image of the shadow is most explicit in im Schatten, a work written especially for this recording. It is based on a 2004 violin solo, Eigenschatten, an unusual feature of which is the use of tape playback: the solo violin is recorded during the first half of the piece; in the second half this recording is played back simultaneously with the live performer, so that the soloist is in effect in duo with him- or herself. In im Schatten the parts of soloist and tape playback are transcribed directly for first and second violins. The remaining instruments present an amplification of the first violin’s line, expanding and reflecting it texturally and harmonically.

Eigenschatten itself is an incredibly spare piece. Although it sustains a high emotional charge, much of it is just single notes or intervals punctuated by whole-bar rests (characterising even the most basic elements is a particular skill of Wilson’s). Nevertheless, it maintains a presence through the use of repetitions and recapitulations: opportunities to intensify and reinforce each utterance. That spareness is maintained in im Schatten, but in the echo chamber of the string quartet the reflections and echoes begin to bury the original. As though in a hall of mirrors, the original violin line is heard in multiple distorted and fragmented versions of itself, such that it almost becomes overwhelmed by its own reflections. Subject and shadow become interchangeable: we are back to the blurring of reality and apparition.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2010

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