Wednesday 9 September 2020

Less is more: Andrew Hamilton's 'Joy'

Andrew Hamilton Joy; Andrew Hamilton; Ergodos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 September 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The contemporary Irish composer returns to his childhood musical roots with an intimate disc of music for voice and violin

Andrew Hamilton Joy; Andrew Hamilton; Ergodos
This new disc from Irish composer Andrew Hamilton, Joy on the Ergodos label, features Hamilton as both composer and performer, as Hamilton performs his own sequence of pieces for voice and violin.

The cover of the disc (see left) features a picture of Hamilton as a child, and the music on the disc is a deliberate attempt to return to elements of his childhood. 

Hamilton writes "The pieces on this album chart a direct line back to my beginnings as a musician – I was an annoying child who was always singing and at seven I started learning the violin. Writing fragments down, singing along with them was a natural consequence and I retreated into this little world of melodies I had created. After years of study I found my way back to this type of 'beginners mind'. Performing my own works gave me the space to really experiment with material and form."

The six works on the disc vary in length enormously from under a minute to over 15 minutes, but all are linked both conceptually and musically so that Joy can play as a single over arching work, which ends with the short title track which features a recording of Hamilton as a child singing Sir Arthur Somervell's Handel arrangement, Silent Worship.

The titles of the pieces are somewhat cryptic, 'The Spirit of Art', 'a', 'May', 'product #1', 'i and i', 'Joy', yet also rather intriguing, and given Hamilton's statements about the origins of the pieces we start to construct our own narratives about the music.

The music is presented in quite an intimate way, and we feel almost as if we are simply overhearing Hamilton. The violin part is sometimes virtuosic and full of loops and repetitions, there is an obsessiveness about it, a need to keep going back. And perhaps this links to Hamilton's emotional need to go back to the music of his childhood. The vocal line, by contrast, sounds not so much like a produced voice as someone simply singing along, sometimes duplicating the violin, sometimes counterpointing it. The work that the piece brought to mind was Gavin Bryars' Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, where his recording of a homeless man singing is counterpointed with Bryars' own rich invention.

Andrew Hamilton was born in Dublin and studied in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands with Kevin Volans, Anthony Gilbert and Louis Andriessen. He was recently appointed composer in residence with Crash Ensemble and currently teaches at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Andy Hamilton: Joy

I am unclear as to how the tracks were created, whether we are listening to Hamilton singing and playing the violin simultaneously, or whether it was done via multi-tracking. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but such is the sense of intimacy that Hamilton creates that the disc feels as if we are listening to Hamilton playing the violin and singing along to himself at the same time. The words that he uses are largely his own, though one track, 'May' uses his own translation of Heinrich Heine. Listening to the disc you don't really pick up on the words, and the download version did not seem to include song texts, which is perhaps something of a limitation.

For all the virtuosity of the violin writing, there is a plainness and directness to this music, it doesn't have any luxurious corners and concentrates on a few essentials. The musical material, referring as it does to the sort of scales and little melodies created by the child Andy, is quite simple at times but Hamilton's looping and need for repetitious structures create something else. This is not music for casual listening, it needs a sort of concentrated attention.

Andrew Hamilton (born 1977) - Joy
Andrew Hamilton (voice, violin)
Recorded December 2014, June 2019 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
ERGODOS ER31 [39:04]

Available from Ergodos.

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