Friday 6 June 2014

A remarkable disc of improvisations, by Sophie Harris, that are spontaneous and, above all, supremely musical on a new release from MMC Recordings

A new release from MMC Recordings , I feel the silence, features cellist Sophie Harris playing her own improvisations in a recording that is something of a one off.


The idea of this recording came from Sophie Harris’ friendship with violinist Rick Koster with whom she had worked for many years as members of the Duke Quartet. Whilst on tour they shared their mutual interests in philosophy and poetry, resulting in an invitation to Sophie for tea and chat at his home and studio something which developed into improvising and recording and finally this CD.

Sophie Harris tells us that this CD is completely improvised in a tiny room, with nothing changed or patched in any way. Indeed, she tells us that she could almost not bear to alter anything however imperfect it was – London traffic, creaky chairs to name but two.

Sophie Harris says that at the heart of her aural journey is her own story, from her love of the cello and music, the first string quartet concert she attended aged three, the gift of being taught and guided from the age of ten by her cello teacher, William Pleeth, through a terrible near death infant illness, her poetry and music making, the sense of unity and somatic completeness in the sensory integration, her particular love of cultural Europe, of the Second Viennese School, Freud, Schoenberg, Berg, Stefan Zweig, her Semitic heritage and for the extraordinary power that music has to acknowledge human suffering and communality.

Song of the Birds takes the Catalan folk song, Song of the Birds, popularised by the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and which came to represent dissent from Franco’s regime in Spain. It opens on cello harmonics before leading into a melody full of passion and, at times Moorish influences in some of the intervals. Though the close recording often highlights the astringent nature of the music it is very detailed.

The poem, Wash Me, was written when someone close to Sophie Harris was very ill. This music invokes the poem as water, bird and a transformative vehicle for suffering. Arpeggios create the feel of rippling water before a higher pitched melody appears over the theme. Soon the words of the poem are recited with the cello melody, before the reciter is left alone to conclude the words of the poem.

Harris was struck by the use of plaintive C as the ‘enlightened’ key in Purcell’s O Lord Hear My Prayer. She feels that the dissention from the C is Purcell’s prayer, the struggle and suffering on the journey to purification. It is the language of that journey which she wanted to explore in Purcell, by extrapolating the C and allowing an ensuing jumble of harmonic colour, as if throwing light onto the different vibrations of flowers, then finding a path back to the beginning.

It is full of strange dissonances and angst filled decorations around the theme before the Purcellian melody appears through the texture, in this rather effective improvisation on Purcell. It is certainly a piece that I will want to return to.

The poem Kafka came to Harris as a series of vivid images whilst driving to Rick Koster’s house one day. On arrival she wrote it down and then went inside to create its musical counterpart, Kafka, touching on the Kafka story The Penal Colony in which a machine murders its victims by imprinting their crime onto their body via huge needles. In her poetic journey a white calico covered with myriad silken threads uprooted and jumbled, mirrors Kafka’s punctured human body. And it is the unravelling of this yarn or narrative thread which makes visible the unspeakable. 

Kafka starts with ruminations in the bass, often quite turbulent, with some brilliantly achieved effects often quite manically appropriate to the story. The music speeds a little and becomes more dynamic with Harris producing sounds that give the effect of a small ensemble, such is the brilliant technique used, leaving one surprised that this is a single take of one artist’s performance.

Icebergs, Sophie Harris tells us, is a visceral image of our melting world: the feel and sound of the far North. As the composer inhabited that space, she had a strange shamanistic experience of being taken over by an ancient Inuit woman. In a rocking trance, a sung lament for the melting world came out of her, which she then translated into cello dialogue and forms the apex of this piece.

There are hushed, distant sounds in the opening, the harmonics of the cello producing quite glacial textures. There are some exquisite, hushed string effects with this improvisation hardly rising above pianissimo. The cellist produces occasional little vocal sounds and bird sounds seem to appear. Quiet how these sounds are produced is not clear. The music becomes a little more dynamic but soon falls to a more hushed nature. There is an underlying melody throughout that rises up towards the end in music that seems to evoke the nature sounds of the north, with more vocal sounds in the coda.

Sophie Harris gives us another improvisation on an early composer, this time Josquin des Pres. She has previously worked with the Hilliard Ensemble and her improvisation Josquin is homage to Jan Garbarek and his work with the Hilliard, juxtaposing ancient and modern.

This is a glorious improvisation with Harris’ exceptional multiple stopping adding so much to this timeless music. Such is her amazing technique that this sounds like two instrumentalists playing. A lovely piece.

Muddy is the affectionate name which Rick Koster gave to the next piece it having reminded him of Muddy Waters.  Rhythmic, repeated pizzicato notes open, slowly growing louder as deeper, gruff bowed sounds appear. One can agree with Koster when bluesy sounds appear over the rhythmic bass ground. Towards the end, vocal sounds appear over the cello part. Again Harris’ ability to create such layers of sound is remarkable.

Rainforest, Sophie Harris tells us, is a short aural ode to our beautiful world; sunrise in Brazil calling us into being with the calling of animals and birds unknown to her in shape or voice. It opens with the cello quietly producing sounds that are rather mysterious and ethereal and creating the atmosphere of a strange landscape. As the improvisation continues strange bird and animal sounds emerge until the music falls into silence.

Concerning Africa, Harris says that, after mining the vaults of Freud and Gizek one day, she started a piece which initially was called Africa, an enquiry into our origins and impulses. But then, like all free thought, it went on its own journey and quickly took on a different character resulting in a piece which is a personal embracing of the proximity of spirituality and psychosis .

The cello opens with sounds that have a distinct ethnic feel but soon seem to take on the character of an Arab theme as the melody slowly and languidly proceeds. Again the sounds that Harris produces give the impression of a small ensemble rather than an individual player.  The improvisation grows increasingly passionate as the Arab melody emerges more fully, building to a rich, full weaving of sounds.

This is a remarkable disc that works well on its own terms, that of spontaneous music making, unvarnished, honest and, above all, supremely musical. Without any doubt there is some exceptionally fine playing from Sophie Harris.

There are, occasionally, some spurious background noises but these are easy to ignore as one is drawn into the music. Overall the recording is remarkably good considering the circumstances under which it was made.

There are informative booklet notes by the cellist, including the texts to the relevant poems.

I would dearly love to have a complete CD of Sophie Harris improvising on pieces by other early composers.

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