Malham Cove is a large limestone cliff towering over a valley in North Yorkshire, formed from water erosion as a nearby glacier melted. Flowing from an underground cave beneath the cove, and emerging from its base, is a stream called Malham Beck. Narrow and fast-flowing, the beck has an uneven stone floor and is also strewn with small rocks, leading to the creation of thousands of little eddies as the water pours around and over this limestone obstacle course on its way down the valley. Each eddy is a microcosm of activity, with tiny swirling whirlpools, backflows, sudden belcalmings, and bubblings from the deep.
At first listen, Cristián Alvear’s recording of Ryoko Akama’s “Hermit”, performed here on acoustic guitar, seems a single, slow-moving current of events. After a few more playbacks, however, eddies start to emerge, created by the repetition or almost-repetition of certain ways of making sounds, certain impressions left by hanging notes, and certain ripples of aural thought. The sparseness and frequent silences relate it to Alvear’s recent recording of Radu Malfatti’s “shizuka ni furu ame”, but while that piece seems to return again and again to a single moment in order to enter into it more deeply (or miss it more narrowly), Akama’s score uses compositional ‘rocks’ of different sizes and shapes to obstruct the flow of the music in contrasting ways, and thus ensure the emergence of a different, multilimbed sort of form.
How much enjoyment you get from the recording may depend on how much you like watching the swirling and stilling of eddies in a stream, or running your fingers along the erosion patterns on the surface of a rock. I really like it. Alvear’s playing is once again beautifully clear and poised, with care given to each and every note, hum, and tap on the guitar’s body. The apparent simplicity of the piece belies the numerous crosscurrents, backflows, and asymmetries that shape and direct its flowing, from the general structure of the work right down to each discrete, unique sound event. The comparison of a poem to a stream is a long-standing literary cliché, which perhaps makes this review guilty of similar faults, but I do think Akama’s way of guiding openness towards form, and Alvear’s way of following that guidance, transforms the perception of time in the way great poetry often does.