Stop Motion Music

Tim Rutherford-Johnson explores composer Neil Tòmas Smith's new portrait CD.

2 months ago
Time to read
About 6 minutes

One of Neil Tòmas Smith’s great artistic inspirations is the German composer Mathias Spahlinger. (Indeed, he published a monograph on Spahlinger, the first in English, in 2021.) Yet Smith’s music is stylistically unlike Spahlinger’s often rigorously procedural, geometric constructions. It is certainly abstract, but it also permits accidents, surprises and whimsical changes of direction. It also does not share the German composer’s far-left political stance; or at least, not explicitly so. What it does share is an interest in the legacy and discoveries of the modernist tradition of the twentieth century. Moreover, like Spahlinger, Smith employs that legacy – often derided for its sterile intellectualism – to reveal aspects of human experience.

In this respect, Scaffold for Simon (2015), written for Smith’s friend, the drummer Simon Roth, is a signature work. Its premise is relatively simple. The drummer must invent three different grooves: fast, medium and slow. The score assigns each to a line of a three-line stave, with notes and rests indicating the points where each groove is to be played or not. With one extended exception in the middle of the piece, each new note starts the groove from its beginning. The score doesn’t give any indications of actual rhythms, timbres, and so on, but functions like a scaffold of tempo changes over which the drummer drapes fragments of their pre-selected grooves. Fills and details can be added ad lib.

The effect is somewhat like toggling between drum machine presets. But this digital aspect belies the considerable human virtuosity required to navigate it: holding three tempi in mind at all times, giving each groove a distinct character and musicality (no matter how fragmentarily it is heard), smoothing over interruptions to the flowing movements that are the usual goal of a good ‘groove’ drummer. As much as the grooves themselves provide the traditional ‘musical’ content to which our ear is instinctively drawn, Smith’s music really emerges from the cuts in between, in those knots and obstacles around which his player must navigate, reconcile and reshape their playing. After all, the piece is called Scaffold for Simon; and it is the creation of human agency within such tightly constricted, deliberately unhelpful constraints that brings the work alive.

Different forms of human agency connect all five works on this recording. In Manual (2014–22), for two cellos, it is immediate and physical. Neither player uses a bow, instead making all the sounds with their hands, directly on their instrument. Instructions include sliding a hand over a string, applying the back of a fingernail to a vibrating string (creating delicate combinations of buzzing harmonics), flicking the strings, or a ‘nail tremolo’ in which the fingernail is used like a tiny bow. Although swapping a dedicated sound-making tool for the bluntness of nails and fingertips removes absolute accuracy, it is replaced by a more visceral vocabulary of gestures that strives for, rather than achieves, sonic perfection. The constraints upon the players are different from those of Scaffold for Simon, but a similar process of wresting control of an unstable landscape – and to some extent giving oneself up to it – is at work: there is a sense in both pieces of the performer as a kind of shock absorber, soaking up and transferring energies to create a smooth ride. Manual underwent a long gestation: its origins are in a separate, unperformed duet for cellos, which was rewritten in 2017 for one instrument, and then rewritten again for two. Dividing the music between two cellos adds another dimension of reciprocity and accommodation, along which the two players sometimes act as one and at others act in opposition to or in echo of each other.

The title of The Music Lesson (2019), for speaking harpist, evokes Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same name, also known as Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman. Vermeer’s picture – with the lady shown only from behind, the curious gaping expression on the gentleman’s face, and the inscription on the virginal lid, ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’ – is enigmatic in meaning but generally taken to represent pleasures and possibly love between the two figures, expressed through shared music-making. Smith’s piece takes a more ominous tone, however. The composer prefaces the score with the words ‘This didn’t happen to me. But this happens too much to ignore’, and as the music gradually suggests (although never explicitly reveals), the ‘this’ in question is the all-too common abuse of minors under the cover of instrumental education. A short prelude is made up of fragments – practice gestures such as arpeggios, legato motifs between the two hands, finger tremolos, and a charming descending melody to be played ‘like a quote’. The abrupt changes in harmony and gesture type create an unsettling atmosphere. This is resolved to an extent by the introduction of the spoken text, which begins as though the player is talking to herself, reminding herself what she must do: ‘right hand, left hand’, approximately in time with the notes themselves and in line with her actual physical gestures. Slowly the musical fragments reveal themselves as analogues of her spoken recollections, sharing rhythm and tone. Mentions of her age – 7, 10, 14 – are followed by the same number of repeated dominant seventh chords. The ‘quoted’ melody becomes associated with a particular musical performance, a world outside the lesson but darkly tainted by it. There are various correspondences between music and text, then, but also a deliberate slippage: the performance notes observe that while there is some alignment between musical figures and speech rhythms, ‘a perfect match is not necessary, or indeed desirable’. Preferable instead is a confusion of the two, a disorientation of authority and reliability; a questioning of power represented by the score, the rigorous demands of musical education, and the embodied and mental recollection of the young pupil. By tying together the learning of an instrument and the exploitation of a minor (a black pun the composer does not fail to note), Smith hopes to ask whether this connection is intrinsic or whether it can be overcome. The piece was originally written for piano – the most common setting for childhood music lessons – but this arrangement for the naïve tones of the harp paradoxically renders it in still darker hues.

Happier memories lie behind Progressions of Memory (2020) for Baroque flute, written for Carla Rees ‘with huge admiration and respect’. Smith is a flautist himself, and this work is dedicated fondly to his own teachers. The music is based on the recurring harmonic ground (the ‘progressions’ of the title) from the Minuetto movement of Handel’s Flute Sonata in E minor, HWV 375, a work that Smith himself learnt. For much of his composition this is rendered through tremolos of air and finger sounds, blurred with sweeps of overblowing at the middle or ends of phrases. If a pitch does sound at all, it is as just the faintest outline. Only in the middle of the piece do hints of Handel’s original melodic phrasing emerge, followed by an elongated, chromatically altered variation on the accompanying bassline. The melody reappears in a stronger shade for the work’s final third, but again it is clouded by the tremolos, which eventually win out as the music fades once more into memory.

The longest work on this album, Stop Motion Music for vibraphone and three flutes, is perhaps also the one in which the human perspective is the least apparent. (The work is played continuously but has been split into four tracks for this album.) Unlike the awkward, compromised landscapes of Scaffold for Simon, Manual, or even the ghostly recollections of Progressions of Memory, its milieu is a frictionless space of machined metal tubes: the silver of the flutes and the aluminium of the vibraphone’s resonators, which as well as sounding in the usual way are activated by sine tones that emanate from small speakers placed inside them. The divisions between flute and vibraphone, and sine tones and instruments, are thus deliberately obscured: the instruments themselves become the shock absorbers, translating the attacks of tongue or beater into pools of vibration, pulse and acoustic beating. Separate musical threads are shaded into one another, unable to ratchet together and drive the music forward.

Although it was conceived some time before, Stop Motion Music was composed during the spring of 2020, amidst enforced contemplations of the familiar. A similar sense of arrested time plays out in the piece, which is structured as a series of vignettes or objects in the fog. Human agency is present here in its withdrawal: for once not in the navigation of a treacherous path but in the choice to attend and to consider; to let things unfold as they are.

– Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2022