With superlative recordings of Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti under his belt, Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear has proved himself one of the go-to people for a certain strand of Wandelweiser-influenced contemporary composition. His virtuosic technique, honed from years playing the classical repertoire, as well as his openness to current ideas around sound and silence, give him the perfect tools to address work that probes traditional conceptions of what a composed music can be, that set played notes within vast fields of silence, and, in the case of practitioners such as Michael Pisaro, that use abstract swathes of noise as dissonant counterpoint to more recognisable sonic elements. It’s no surprise, then, that Alvear is so well-suited to Sarah Hennies, who is fast becoming one of the most interesting new(ish) composers emerging from that space. While sharing many of the concerns of the Wandelweiser group – emptiness, silence, an often-deceptive simplicity and so on – as well as an interest in the rhythmic pulse mined by a particular strain of the minimalist old guard, Hennies is developing an aesthetic wholly her own. Her work is just as likely to give the complacency of 1960s minimalism a rap on the knuckles, even as her use of mantra-like, percussion phrases recalls Music for 18 Musicians or other such works. But in place of cosy mesmerism, Hennies lays down uncomfortable, bloody-minded repetition, with abrupt transition and bursts of dissonance placed against more familiarly soothing passages.
Indeed, Gather & Release, written and performed by Hennies and released earlier this year on Category of Manifestation, hits us with 11 minutes of gasping hiss before we get anywhere near what more conservative ears may recognise as music. That this white noise, on closer listen, seems to be a field recording of a weir or waterfall only emphasises the inventiveness of Hennies’ approach. Its constant presence on Gather frames what comes afterwards, providing a blankly ominous shadow to an insistent vibraphone pattern that occupies the foreground during the piece’s middle section. The vibraphone is replaced towards the end by a piercing sine tone that merges with the background rush to create an abrasive attack that’s somewhere between electroacoustic improvisation and full-on noise. It reappears on the slightly less aggressive Release, in a soft-hued throb that, at first, seems tranquil. Yet the deliberate seesawing volume changes and steadfast unwillingness to admit any melodic progression give it an unnerving quality, like the disquieting, impossible-to-ignore stare of an abandoned child. Beautiful, yes, but as a whole Gather & Release holds within itself a challenge to minimalism, forcing it to confront the impasse of repetition while celebrating its effects. Perhaps this is why the later sections of Release are dominated by the metronomic tick-tock sounds used in bilateral stimulation, which repurposes repetition to therapeutic ends. It certainly focuses the mind, if nothing else, and when the shimmering waves of vibraphone and sine waves reappear, there is an almost psychedelic feeling of being transported to a new realm.
Orientating Response explores similar territory, although its focus solely on Alvear’s nylon-stringed guitar necessarily narrows the breadth that characterised by Gather & Response. The transformative intensity of its effects is, however, almost as striking. Written specifically with Alvear in mind, Orientating Response consists of six sections, each with its own instruction from the composer (‘All sounds should ring freely (as long as is possible) unless otherwise indicated’, and so on). There are some immediate similarities – the dampened, struck strings of the opening section recall the bilateral motorik of Release, and, later, a passage of repeated strumming evokes the composer’s own vibraphone cascades. There’s plenty more going on, however, with a mix of Hennies’ love of repeated phrases and the woody resonance of Alvear’s chosen instrument opening up engrossing possibilities. Occasionally, ghosts of Alvear’s previous works creep in – the stalled plucks of Hennies’ second movement, with their asymmetrical, loop-like gait, rub up against the precise dyads of Malfatti’s Shizuka Ni Furu Ame; the almost pastoral sweeps immediately following it, meanwhile, nod to the miniaturist lyricism of Jurg Frey’s Guitarist, Alone. But these echoes amplify, rather than diminish the peculiar sound world that the pair have created. Each movement is totally self-contained, holding our attention totally during its span before vanishing to be replaced by its equally-transfixing successor, solid melting into air. And if there seems to be little logic in the order in which Hennies places her six movements, well, this matters not one jot.
And, despite the tightly-orchestrated nature of much of Orienting Response, there’s also an in-built awareness of the imperfect humanity involved in the act of playing. One of Hennies’ edicts states: ‘Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.’ Another: ‘Allow “mistakes” to occur, do not attempt to correct them.’ This is a far cry from the precision of Guitarist, Alone, which involved Alvear working with Frey over 18 months to achieve the particular technical skills required for the pieces, and which resulted in the unearthly perfection of that album. Of course, what constitutes a ‘mistake’ for a musician of Alvear’s calibre is somewhat different to the bum notes and fluffed chords of the apprentice twanger – in place of the false moves and frustrated clangs of the bedroom wannabee shredder, Alvear allows a patina of minor variations to inflect his performance. That strummed section, for example, seems to take on a shimmering halo as it progresses, not unlike the phasing reverberations of Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study 2 or the blurred realism resulting from placing multiple duplicated images on top of one another. This, finally, is what gives Orienting Response its strange power. That something so finely calibrated can weave a beautiful (albeit sometimes undetectable) inconsistency into its DNA gives it an almost glorious fallibility. In reality, there are no mistakes here, despite Hennies’ instructions. Just a series of wondrous moments.