Wednesday 13 December 2023

Surrender to the gentle magic: Benjamin Tassie combines live-performance & field recording focusing on water-powered instruments to remarkably poetic effect

Benjamin Tassie; A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time; Benjamin Tassie, Sam Underwood, Rebecca Lee, Rob Bental; Birmingham Record Company

Benjamin Tassie; A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time; Benjamin Tassie, Sam Underwood, Rebecca Lee, Rob Bental; Birmingham Record Company
Reviewed 13 December 2023

Part live-performance, part-field recording, this disc captures the poetic interaction between natural landscape and ancient man-made sounds, featuring three waterpowered instruments

The Rivelin Valley in Sheffield was once a thriving hub of water-powered industry, and even today the ruins of twenty watermills  and twenty-one mill dams can be found along the river’s length, ghosts of Sheffield’s industrial past that have become haven for wildlife.

This new disc from Birmingham Record Company, A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time, features music by Benjamin Tassie that doesn't just evoke this landscape, instead Tassie's pieces were produced with the landscape, in dialogue with the river. The album features three new water-powered instruments designed and built by Tassie with instrument maker Sam Underwood. A harpsichord, hurdy gurdy, and a water organ or hydraulis are played by the river. 

For the harpsichord, a waterwheel turns, operating a mechanism that plucks the strings. In the hurdy gurdy, a water-wheel rubs a rosined wheel against two strings, producing a drone. The hydraulis uses the river's water to displace air in its chamber; as it is submerged, organ pipes are sounded in a system based loosely on an Ancient Greek design.

The disc features ten pieces, using these instruments alongside ones played by musicians, Rebecca Lee (bass viol), Rob Bental (nyckelharpa), and Benjamin Tassie (lap steel guitar and rebec). The recordings are part live performance, part field recording. The recordings were made at dawn or dusk during a week in late-July 2023, each track recorded in a single take on the site of a former water mill, ten locations in all the names of the tracks linking to these locations. The recordings capture not just the musical instruments but the surrounding sounds, natural and man-made, bird-calls, the sound of the water itself, passing joggers, traffic, dogs, children and more. 

Tassie explains in his evocative booklet note that the quiet quality of the instruments was important, old instruments were quieter and evoke a time before the world became loud. The pieces require concentrated listening, but also explore the way the man-made music, the sound created by haphazard action of the water and the natural environment combine, to create something multi-layered that Tassie intends to evoke both the Rivelin Valley today but also the layers of its history.

At first all we hear is the water but then something remarkably ancient and low emerges in Walkley Bank Tilt, there is a regular irregularity to the sound, a pulsing the arises from the action of the water, and your ear becomes drawn to the subtle differences, the gentle magic. Frank Wheel features both subtle droning and the plucking of the harpsichord. The CD booklet does not explain exactly what we are hearing, what instruments, instead we are asked to surrender to the magic of the sounds as they arise from the surrounding environment. There is a hypnotic quality, meditative about the repetition that is not quite repetition, a sense of variation within a natural flow.

Plonk Wheel focuses on the plucked sounds, yet always the water is in the background, flowing, and there is something so cohesive about the whole that its origins seem startling. Here was get man-made noises too, the feeling that this is a sound archive or perhaps sound art. Upper Coppice Wheel returns us to drones so deep and thrumming, we might almost be listening to the sound of machinery, perhaps another of the multiple historical layers.

Little London Wheel combines water-powered with musician-made sounds to magical effect, different timbres combining in a way that is part improvisation but partly the musician responding to the water-powered sounds. Hind Wheel seems to emerge from the natural sounds, yet the eerie whistle could almost be a factory whistle heard in the distance. For Swallow Wheel, a drone rumbles, never quite stable in pitch, whilst plucking forms a counterpoint that introduces another layer of complexity to the sounds.  

Second Coppice Wheel combining water-powered and musician-made sounds to completely intriguing effect, highly multi-layered yet feeling as if arising out of the landscape. Roscoe Wheel is a short recording that seems to feature the water itself, whilst we end with Wolf Wheel, a haunting mix of drone and plucked, the rhythms forming into a natural irregularity, the contributions of the musicians teasing out structure, the sounds of the wider environment giving the recording a very present quality.

None the tracks present the sort of pieces that have a beginning, middle and end, instead we are simply eavesdropping on a moment which could continue, perhaps is continuing.

Benjamin Tassie explains, "Playing beside the water meant becoming attuned to its sounds and pace, to the way the river played the instruments, to how the environment dictated the tempo and feeling of a track. Recording was a process of listening as much as it was of making sound; of standing still and becoming attuned, momentarily, to the landscape. I hope that A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time offers the listener a moment of such connection with the river." 

There is something wonderfully poetic about this disc, along with a craziness that asks for it to be taken on completely its own terms. You have to listen with ears attuned to a different rhythm, but if you do then the results have a kind of magic.

For those that want to explore more, Benjamin Tassie's website includes a film made to accompany the project.

Benjamin Tassie (born 1987) - A Ladder is Not the Only Kinds of Time
Walkley Bank Tilt
Frank Wheel
Plonk Wheel
Upper Coppice Wheel
Little London Wheel
Hind Wheel
Swallow Wheel
Second Coppice Wheel
Roscoe Wheel
Wolf Wheel
Harpsichord, hurdy gurdy & hydraulis designed and built by Benjamin Tassie and Sam Underwood
Rebecca Lee (bass viol)
Rob Bental (nyckelharpa)
Benjamin Tassie (lap steel guitar and rebec)
Sound recording: Ross Davidson
Recorded July 2023 in the Rivelin Valley, Sheffield

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