I’VE BEEN studying science. To be more precise, The Science of Snow…… a free improvisation release which, like some delicately efflorescent ice crystal, has securely grabbed and held my attention. “Free improvisation?”, you may ask. “Abstract self-indulgence?”, you might inquire. Well, the beauty of this experience entirely depends on both your musical standpoint and your aesthetic receptivity.
Charlie Beresford is an acoustic guitarist, pianist and visual artist based in Radnorshire, in the Welsh Marches (twixt the Shropshire Hills in the North and the Brecon Beacons in the South). Classically-trained cellist Sonia Hammond, too, resides in this beautiful rural oasis – and both are founding members of the Radnor Improvisers. A cancelled studio booking led the musicians (already established in their respective musical careers) to maximise the opportunity by opening up an improvisational session; and what ensued was this spontaneous, imaginative blend of sound, drawing on contemporary classical, jazz and rustic folk.
Those who have witnessed the charm of Knighton, Presteigne, Kington, Hergest Ridge and surrounding areas cannot fail to have been affected, either creatively or spiritually, by their unquestionable splendour (alluded to in this album’s evocative, ECM-like sleeve photography). And here, Beresford and Hammond appear to reflect their impressions of those landscapes, and the changing seasons’ effect on them, in this engaging 45-minute dialogue of highly unpredictable artistry.
Winter is implied in the title track, as Beresford’s thinly-timbred guitar picking is tempered by Hammond’s sustained, Tavener-like cello phrases – a vivid pictorialisation of watercolour sunrise melting night’s icicle sculptures; and Marking the Hillside‘s hollow, gamelan-style chimes underpin searing, misty harmonics and fascinatingly abrasive strings and percussive slaps. The eight-minute panorama of Headless Bluebell may seem disquieting, yet the multicoloured hues of piano and cello (suggesting Glass, and even glimpses of Elgar’s later-life chamber works) summon images of the Borders’ mercurial climate, as if viewed from steep mountain tops.
Snow Blindness possesses a frail beauty, its wide-openness easily conjuring the more melancholic character of Peter Warlock (The Curlew) or E J Moeran (the string quartets) – both of whom resided in these Welsh borderlands; and Beresford’s mellower, folksy guitar provides some warmth in an otherwise bleak soundscape. The dissonant undercurrent of Scratching the Sky, achieved through close, fluctuating cello and guitar intervals, is shot through with the Finzi-like intensity of Hammond’s attack, as well as muted prog-rock guitar ostinato.
In contrast, searing heat is imagined in Gecko as Beresford’s Steve Reich-fashioned rhythms, amidst disembodied clatters, are impressively traversed by sinewy, writhing cello; and the relative cello serenity of Inside and Outside the Head is curiously threatened by persistent, percussive bows and scrapes from Beresford’s guitar. To close, The Path, the Bridge, and the Otherside might hint at folksong, as cantabile cello finds greater harmony with its captivatingly intricate guitar accompaniment.
Free improvisation might well be perceived as challenging – but, once ‘inside’ this deeply-created music, and listened to as closely as possible, it can create a powerful, personal response. For me, the experiences of discovery in this album continue.
Charlie Beresford acoustic guitar, piano
Sonia Hammond cello
the52nd – 52NDCD001 (2014)