For a long time now it has seemed that the contemporary classical scene has been barricaded to female solo pianists. Though the past decade has seen artists composing for classical instruments unexpectedly in the ascendant, most of them are pianists who build their arrangements around their majestic keyboard-led instrument; and most of them are men. Think Max Richter, Peter Broderick, Philip Glass and latest wonder-boys Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm. Their common (but not bonding) feature is minimalism inspired by Steven Reich, legend of twentieth century classicism, and emboldened usage of electronics that helped them to express ever more sonic nuances. Whereas the solo cello scene is ‘led’ by the likes of Hildur Guðdnadóttir, Zoë Keating and Julia Kent, contemporary piano field is almost utterly male. About the only female exception from this classical brotherhood is Rachel Grimes, part of post-rock/classical outfit Rachel’s, though even she has never received the same kind of acclaim given to her male peers.
Fresh hope for redressing the gender imbalance is arguably personified in Australian pianist and composer Sophie Hutchings. Born into a musical family and probably having grown up in tight coexistence with classical music, her compositions are not just documents of romanticist influences (most notably some of Chopin’s more dreamy and emotional nocturnes and preludes) and debts to Arvo Pärt and Rachel’s; also among her muses are My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. Efforts to pigeonhole Hutchings within the current scene, therefore, isn’t the most reasonable ambition. Her modern approach to classical music is distinct in its perception and highlighting of the melodic motifs, employing complicated textures only to serve her own aesthetic purpose rather than any virtuosic posing or some elitist eligibility.
The first striking thing about her debut album Becalmed is that it starts with the longest and most complex piece, the eleven minute long ‘Seventeen’. Starting with a straightforward melody with basic harmonic combinations, the early impression is of a composition that’s perhaps too simplistic, too smooth and too romantic. That doesn’t last long though; Hutchings’ years of re-working and deepening her ideas has resulted in a much more nuanced and reasonably ornamental piece. Transitions between moods are fluent, and the detail increases with every variation that occurs during her protracted reminiscence of her teenage years; calm and dreamy becomes excited and active, and slow and sleepy motives evolve into étude-like cascades of vibrancy and vigour.
The vital modification of Hutchings’ calm and introspective piano moods lies in the incorporation of additional instruments, all of them played by her family. Perhaps it’s this tight-knit bond that gives the recording such an intimate, chamber-like atmosphere, breathing into the sound of every single tone. Their arrival sits somewhere between shy and careful. Their first introduction is of the tender vibrations and tremors of a bow making contact with a violin string in the first half of ‘Sunlight Zone’; shivering, it reshapes into an emotive cry that falls and rises through various octaves to reach its final rest in uneasy silence. Background noises and gentle percussion remind the listener that ‘Becalmed’ is not just a dream in its own world, but Hutchings is part of the reality.
Album standout ‘Portrait Of Haller’ captures her braver and more resolute ideas, materialising in decisively forte and unsettling cymbals. It’s hard not to feel completely breathless when the music fades out before bursting robustly back into play with a beautiful entangling of piano and drums. Shorter compositions that better resemble actual songs possess a looser atmosphere. ‘Following Sea’, with its repetitive rubato and silky drums, visits a jazzy arena, whereas ‘Toby Lee’ takes another bow to Chopin as Hutchings sits alone with her piano (and otherworldly echoes of strings) as some kind of memento of nude emotion.
Just when you think that Hutchings is done with romanticist tricks and interplay with drums, she adds another layer of introspection and deepens it into a moving sorrow. Such blue spheres meet her logical selection of cello as a peer instrument in penultimate track, ‘After Most’, complemented by cacophony and slight atonality, the three combining to make an even more attractive statement of Hutchings’ complex musical thinking. Along with the album’s best nostalgic and vigorous moments, this unease and disharmony is part of Hutchings’ compositional strength and should be evolved in future recordings. As it is, Becalmed is a soothing and ever-surprising collection that sounds shockingly mature to be her debut.
[Preservation; August 13, 2010]