Review: Philip Glass Complete Etudes for Solo Piano – performed by Sally Whitwell

24993611_1619053181464002_1960731213228749991_n__56598.1516330025

As a music listener, I’ve begun to ponder what is it that makes a ‘lifetime’ album?

That is, one that keeps you company through the decades. One that inspires and consoles in good and bad times. Like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. I fell in love with these as a teenager spinning black vinyl on my Mum’s antique Dansette record player. As a 50-something, they are as fresh and inspiring today as ever.

I reflected on this question last week after slapping on yet another new CD and only mildly enjoying it. Some early-70s jazz fusion. Fast, virtuosic, yet somehow ephemeral too. As I place it back on the shelf, I pat myself on the back for filling a small hole in my train-spotterish knowledge of that genre. Yet I sense I will never listen to it again.

It’s not unusual: My wall unit has 750+ CDs collected over three decades, shelved alphabetically and chronologically in mild-OCD fashion. It’s a movable feast. New albums are added to it monthly. Older ones, I no longer have use for, get shipped off to Ebay to make space for new ones. There are lifetime albums. And  flavour-of-the-month ones that sooner or later just ‘die’.

Musical trends are ever-evolving and as a fairly promiscuous listener, I’m always up for checking what’s out there. The internet suckers me into new CDs (Amazon and Spotify are pests). There are friends’ recommendations I feel obliged to listen to. And there’s my fave artists tipping their outtakes onto fans (I’m looking at you, The Beatles). Yet relatively few of these purchases stick around forever. There’s maybe just 10% of my collection that I consistently listen to through the decades.

So, back to the question at hand: What is it that creates a lifetime album? Hard to summarise. But, if pushed, I’d say music that constantly reinvents itself inside your head and which nourishes mind, body and spirit all at once. Easy, huh? No actually. They only come once in a while.

This autumn, a new one landed on my doormat that seems to tick all these boxes: Philip Glass’ Complete Etudes For Solo Piano – performed by Sally Whitwell.

So far, I’ve listen all the way through just thrice (it’s a double album, two hours, not easy to find the time in one’s daily routine). It’s still early days, but I sense this one will stay with me for however long my remaining lifespan turns out to be.

At first, it comes over as a bunch of repetitive solo piano tracks. And yet as one listens in – to find out if there really is nothing going on here – you end up being seduced by the subtle inner motion and developments that invariably occur.

The opening minute sets the template; slow minor chords repeat over and over until the sheer accumulated weight of repetition opens out – like a blossoming flower – into rippling arpeggios and lyrical melodies. It’s like when you close your eyes; at first all is darkness. But study the darkness and you’ll find amoebic blotches of colour float past your retina. It’s the same here with Whitwell’s endlessly rolling chords.

If you just go with the flow, don’t strain impatiently for immediate developments, sooner or later each Etude track will reward you with subtle variations in tempo, time or timbre. Or the main rhythmic current will spin off into new eddies of fresh chords or tumbling melodies, before returning to the main current.

Etudes is split across two CD discs – ‘Book 1’ and ‘Book 2’ – each with ten tracks numbered 1 to 10. Yet the lack of descriptive titles positively invites the listener to find their own themes or meanings within. As one track follows another, my stream-of-consciousness free associates: ‘the calm before the storm’ – ‘frantically meeting a deadline’ – ‘a butterfly’ – ‘raindrops on a window’ – ‘my father’ – and so on. This is the power of Etudes; lacking any programmatic theme or lyrics to signpost your thoughts, it empowers you to personalise your own relationship with it.

When he started out in the 1960s, Philip Glass was the archetypal New York minimalist the cartoonists loved to mock (images of grand pianos tumbling downstairs). But if his Etudes evoke the ghosts of Schubert, Chopin and Debussy, he refracts them like a beam of white light fed through a minimalist prism until new colours fan out from the other side. Fast, slow, mid-tempi. Furious, calm, or in-between. Monolithic or shape-shifting.  Urban claustrophobia or open spaces. All life is here.

This is where Sally Whitwell comes into her own: her fingers dance in and out of these apparently simplistic modes and moods, an astonishingly supple and agile performance. Not just mechanistically playing from a written score but confident and playful enough to interpret the music and bring something extra to it.

As with Sally’s previous albums, recording and mastering engineer Virginia Reed brings a remarkable clarity to these tracks. Sally may be down under in Sydney 10,000 miles from my North London sofa where I write this. Several layers of digital technology separates her ivory keys from my ears. From her recording studio’s contact mics and mixing desks to my CD player and my cochlear implant that electronically route the audio signals to my brain (as I’m partially deaf too). But you wouldn’t know it from this recording which brings every note and chord to vibrant life. It feels to me as if Sally were playing the piano right here in my living room. The notes travelling up my spine, tickling the nape of my neck, massaging my scalp.

Her piano’s full dynamic range is beautifully caught here – all the way from Book 1 Etude 10’s loud fist-pumping motif to the quiet a will-o-the-wisp passages. Each track seems to emerge from silence and return to it.

When I first began buying CDs in the 1990s, they had a bad name for reducing the warm analogue tone of acoustic music to pixelated 10011 00110 10010 codes with shiny and sterile timbres. But thirty years, on the best engineers are maturing the use of digital technologies to the point where the distinction between live acoustic performance and digital reproduction is almost imperceptible (to my ears, at any rate).

So, Etudes has all elements of a ‘lifetime album’ for me. Some of the tunes are now embedding themselves into my brain as eagworms that pop up randomly during the day as I’m walking through the park or tidying the house. (They’re in very good company here, with the Floyd and Joni).

But I’m on a journey that never ends. Each time I hear Etudes, I hear it slightly differently; passages that I can memorise and hum to myself along with subtle details that had earlier escaped me. That’s key here. This is an album that will continually reinvent itself in the years ahead. It’s utility is endless, I can play it when I’m feeling upbeat or down.

Last but not least, the photographer in me loves the cover artwork too; Maja Basaka’s iconic portrait with rainbow-tinted lights exudes the music’s sophistication and warmth while also capturing Sally’s radiant personality (with a nod to her LBGT pride and activism too).

For now, this isn’t yet a definitive finished review of Etudes. More a review-in-progress, field notes if you like. I’ve often thought it strange that a review typically gets written almost immediately after an album’s release, to meet publishing deadlines. Note to self: I should return to these notes in a year and update them, as the album grows further on me over time (as it surely will), revealing further unexpected vistas and secrets.

For me, Sally Whitwell’s Etudes is one of those ineffable always-the-same-never-quite-the-same-twice albums that rewards repeated listens over an extended period time.

And I’m thinking that’s key to what makes a lifetime album.

Philip Glass The Complete Etudes – performed by Sally Whitwell (2018). ABC Classics 481 6592

For more about Sally Whitwell, visit her website.

More about Maja Basaka photography here.

Stephen Iliffe, December 2018.

Echoes from the Bird Cage

Stephen Iliffe reviews Echoes from the Bird Cage, Evelyn Glennie – Platform Theatre, Kings Cross 

KXX blur

For most, London’s Kings Cross station is a brief stop on the way to somewhere else. Trains and commuters enter and exit as if in a manic 24-hour time lapse film.

Yet across five square miles, the wider Kings Cross district is a rich tapestry of the old industrial revolutions and postmodernist architecture. And, if you have time to wander the side streets, piazzas, gardens, canal towpath, to stop and stare, you’ll discover hidden oases of calm, a soul, even.

As a street photographer, I’ve documented the area for many years (selected images  appear here).

KXX goose

So, I was intrigued to hear that composer and jazz pianist Jill Jarman also intuits this soul. The result is Echoes from The Bird Cage. A six-part impression of Kings Cross that aims to capture – as Jill writes in her programme notes – energy, colour, light and sound, dancing up and around a vertical landscape, relentless movement, combined with quiet and beautiful spaces.

To add to my delight, Echoes is a collaboration with a long-time heroine of mine, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Over three decades, I’ve followed Evelyn’s journey from  orchestras, drums and xylophone to the wilder shores of free improv – beating, brushing, scraping sounds from household or junkyard objects.

And better still, Echoes got its world premiere at the Platform Theatre, ten minutes’ walk from the back of the station.

KXXtraffic

As the spotlight falls on the stage, the eye is drawn to Evelyn’s landscape of percussive instruments and found objects. After a lingering silence, Evelyn appears, slowly walking around the instruments, ear cocked to each one. As if in the act of listening to the Kings Cross streets and their ambient sounds. For Evelyn, active listening has always been a crucial element of her composition and improvisation process.

The music begins softly as The Spaces In-Between evokes pre-dawn stillness. Evelyn’s humming waterphones and brushed gongs reverberate softly until Jill makes her entrance, along with cellist Brian O’Kane, and we’re led into gentle strings and jazzy piano strokes. The city is slowly awakening.

As if on schedule, the tick-tocking rhythms of In Motion steadily up the ante before erupting into a commuter rush of hyperactive drums, horns and strings.

KXXants

One is struck by how familiar instruments are making unfamiliar sounds. Outside The Box is an almost gamelan-like percussive workout; Evelyn picks out a bass clarinet and (without blowing into the mouthpiece) taps the keys with her palms to create bracing non-standard rhythms. These are echoed by Jill who nips over to the back of her grand piano to strum and then tap the strings – John Cage-style – with mallets. Brian drops his bow to ambidextrously explore the Cello strings, while Paul Booth on clarinet and Ian East on tenor sax likewise contribute to the polyrhythmic speed rush.

Walk the Kings Cross side streets, the crowds soon disappear and the roar fades to an ambient hum that intermingles machine, man, nature. Likewise, Echoes From The Bird Cage starts as an abstracted tone poem of sounds bouncing to and fro off buildings at different times of day. Gradually the intensity climbs as the individual contributions of the ensemble players overlay each other into mesmeric patterns, until we slow fade back into silence.

6507798607_089fd7806a_o

The world music-infused Global Chant is a 360-degree experience; marbles rattled in steel pans, a clarinet and flute play from within the audience, eastern sounds and modes drift around our heads like exotic perfume. The ensemble breaks out into chants and handclaps.  Kings Cross has been enriched by waves of immigration from Europe, Africa and Asia. The mood is joyous and celebratory.

Finally, the haunting Echoes Past nods backwards via a series of fleeting vignettes that evoke heavy industries, disease, world wars, poverty, debauchery.

KX clock

For all the visual associations I’ve cited here, Echoes From The Bird Cage isn’t simply picture music. It sets out the physical and emotional terrain of Kings Cross while allowing space for listeners to insert their imaginations into the weft and weave of the music.

During the post-show Q&A, Evelyn clarified that Echoes is a work-in-progress. It will evolve over future performances until, hopefully, getting a wider CD release. This makes sense due to the evolutionary dynamic at the heart of Jill’s and Evelyn’s collaboration. Evelyn respectfully working within the composer’s tightly structured score, Jill allowing space for Evelyn’s wild card improvisations.

KXXXmasterThis aligns perfectly with the ever-changing topography of Kings Cross – a pragmatic trade-off between the infrastructural visions of city and transport planners on one side and quixotic movements of commuters, workers and residents on the other.

In 2018, new questions arise: Kings Cross seems set for another new phase; aspiring to be London’s new creative quarter. Kaleidoscopic, dynamic, emotive. Echoes From The Bird Cage is a bold and beautiful anthem for that future.

All text and images by Stephen Iliffe. Except, concert photo © Martin Collins.  

KXXlight