Helena Gough: Knot Invariants

On her third album, English composer Helena Gough carefully transmutes the improvised recordings of cellists Anthea Caddy and Anton Lukoszevieze into provocative set-pieces that retain occasional traces of their origins. For some, a key question might concern how much the instrument retains its natural character, but in truth Gough's approach renders such a question mundane. If one instead focuses on the album's five pieces as pure sound works, one encounters computer-based sound-sculpting operating at a highly sensitive level. In one track, she moves granite blocks of sound around like a skilled worker manning a construction vehicle; in another, spooky goblin chatter quietly emanates from the depths of a night-time forest.

“Chain Sinnet” bursts into view with a fusillade of wheezing, whirring, whistling, and creaking sounds until a calming, low-pitched cello tone pushes to the forefront before just as quickly vanishing back into the hyperactive mass. This tension between bowed tones and manipulated treatments carries on in the oscillations that follow, with the material never settling into one place for long. There's a raw and elemental, even geological quality to the piece, as if it's a living organism mutating through multiple states, the music alert, alive, and responding in the moment. “Klemheist” opens with bowed tones, plucks, and pregnant pauses that establish a powerful nachtmusik character. Sonically speaking, the piece hews closer to the natural sound world associated with the cello, though is never less explorative for doing so. For thirteen minutes, the material advances and recedes, surges forward before fading away or momentarily pausing, its varying pitches stretching like gossamer threads within some large, complex cluster. “Ossel Hitch” steers us away from the relatively familiar sonorities of “Klemheist” and back to the insectoid micro-universe of “Chain Sinnet,” the laptop-generated treatments again liberally transforming the source elements into a cooing swarm of activity. The material purrs in one place, oozes a woodsy clarinet-like murmur in another, and elsewhere evokes alien transmissions—a constant flow of mutations. A drilling sensation is evoked at the outset of “Double Bowline” by a grinding effect but soon enough the piece assumes a less aggressive character when a delicate ambient tone takes over, clearing the way for restrained tones that rapidly swell into a seething mass. Thereafter the material moves fluidly between contrasting episodes of high intensity and quietude, with Gough adjusting the music's shape with precision and control.

The material never feels wayward or its directions arbitrary but instead considered down to its last detail, the product of intense focus and concentration on its creator's part. That it is shouldn't surprise: Gough initially studied violin and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Junior Academy, before completing a BMus at Birmingham University. Knot Invariants finds Gough confidently and fastidiously shaping her materials with a surgeon's eye, attentive to micro-detail and the distinctive arc of the composition in question.

July-August 2012