I hadn’t come across the composer Bryn Harrison until Another Timbre put out a recording of his solo piano piece “Vessels” a couple of years ago. I never did get round to hearing that release, but now the man is back with “Receiving the Approaching Memory”, a nearly 40-minute work performed on this occasion by Aisha Orazbayeva on violin and Mark Knoop on piano. On his website, Harrison references the philosopher David Hume’s contention that “exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself, but does change something in the mind that contemplates it”; this interest in the experience of repetition has informed much of his recent work, including both of the afore-mentioned pieces.
“Receiving the Approaching Memory” is arranged into six sections, each of which sound to me to be comprised of identical material, separated by a little silence. The material in question is a near-continuous tumble of notes for both performers, stomping up and down in pitch and marked by frequent trills, sudden jumps, and brief pauses for breath. I strained to hear the slightest hint of a pattern, a recognisable shift in key or register, a change in dynamics or pacing or phrasing, the merest lip service to formal development, and heard none. This constant river of babble struck me as frustrating and tedious; who would want to listen to such chaos repeated over and over again, meticulously performed as it was? But then I thought about how often in life it feels like situations are repeated again and again, without any visible sign of change or meaning. If this feeling is such a familiar part of experience, then surely it’s a valid theme for a piece of music.
So I kept listening. And after a while I noticed that frustration and tedium weren’t the only affects the music wrought, though they did recur; sometimes, when I was particularly relaxed and/or exhausted, I heard the surface of the piece harden like glass, smooth and gleaming. I noticed too how, by the fifth or sixth repeated section, the timbres of the two instruments seemed to begin to pull away from each other, despite playing very similar material, such that the violin sounded more and more brittle, and the piano positively mellow in comparison. Hume’s assertion regarding the constant reshaping of consciousness would seem to hold true: repetition does change something in the mind that contemplates it — or that itself repeats a mental action, as in the recollection of a memory. It’s as if Harrison’s music somehow manages to squeeze itself into the temporal gaps between my self and my self, between who I am now and who I am now, prising them open just a little wider, letting a little more light in. Curious, indeed.