For Greg Thomas, the music in Kim Moore’s new release with Blackford Hill is at once a physical thing which moves, an image, and a word provoking profound affect. There is something ‘urgent’ here, he writes.
One of the delights of Kim Moore’s new release from Edinburgh-based label Blackford Hill is that the accompanying artist’s book – done up in a variety of earthy hues, with cover-art by Vivien McDermid – includes a full score. So we can match up phases of the music against the composer’s notations. After four minutes or so, for example, an exotic, melancholy violin solo – plenty of minor and augmented intervals – cuts across a landscape of scratched strings. Moore’s notes, on a matt blue background, read:
Solo – free in time, wait until silent. Very little vibrato – folk style in playing, exploring lighter weight in the bow, glissandos are soft sighs, the ornaments marked are very small catches in the bow and light in feel
And, shortly afterwards, on pale green:
legato, slower in feel as if something is pulling you back from moving forward
A Song We Destroy To Spin Again is about grief: specially the collective grief many of us felt during the first few months of the 2020s, and which we continue to spin out from. We’re talking about the start of the pandemic, the summer of the Australian bush fires, the George Floyd protests. It’s fascinating to glean some insight into how a contemporary composer might filter the intensely political, socially mediated emotions which that era stirred up through a medium as seemingly abstract – as bereft of polemical capacity – as minimal classical music. A glissando tone-shift (a note sliding without interval) becomes a “soft sigh” of lockdown isolation, perhaps. A legato folk melody (smooth, with minimal gaps between notes) expresses a sense of frustrated forward motion: the fatigue of climate anxiety; a Sisyphean strive for racial justice; a post-viral slump, legs in treacle.
In a set of notes accompanying her new, 23-minute work for violin, cello, and electronics, Moore asks how we as a culture can “move from a place of darkness into something new and better.” Known for her theatre, film, and television soundtracks, and for collaborating on artworks such as Chloe White’s This Endless Sea (itself themed around grief), the Glasgow-based sound designer and composer is used to activating or concentrating dramatic mood through sound. Without a scripted or visual analogue, this new work, performed by chamber duo GAIA – with Moore providing digital and tape-loop manipulations – can be seen as an exercise in mustering subtle states of catharsis, mourning, and optimism, using a minimum of creative elements.
Work on the piece began in April 2020, following a commission from Chamber Music Scotland. As Moore notes in an afterword to the book, “the world seemed in a state of fear and chaos. It was hard for that not to filter into the music.” Navigating the constraints of lockdown, she sent a series of string-solo recordings to GAIA members Alice Allen (cello) and Katrina Lee (violin). They sent back their own recordings, which Moore sampled and manipulated using Ableton and magnetic tape. This back-and-forth motion went on, allowing them “to find a middle ground, where dissonant melodies, distorted electronic effects and ominous percussion came together.” The analogy of waves lapping at a shore is used in Moore’s score notes to evoke the relationship between acoustic and digital sonics. The resulting piece, which its creator describes as “a journey with six movements,” was performed live after the easing of restrictions, and the resulting version is what listeners will hear on the Blackford Hill release.
With its six-part structure, A Song We Destroy seems to enact a larger movement from despair to cathartic purgation to a kind of quiet hope. We discuss musical influences over email and Moore mentions ambient post-rock act Stars of the Lid – particularly the use of pedals, amps, and tapes to process acoustic strings – as well as Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening. There’s also something more urgent, a quality of swallowed panic, in the piece that belies those reference points. As Moore notes in the book, “listening to minimal contemporary classical music is often not passive at all.”
An opening, brittle B-flat, sustained high up on the cello fret-board, sounds a note of warning, predicting the calls of sirens and bell sounds, muted but insistent, that ring our across the first few movements. Big digital echo and rattling percussive noises evoke a subterranean or subaquatic world of muffle and delay. At the start of movement three, “Drift,” a swelling of strings signals a shift: two-note chords bowed simultaneously on violin and cello. We sense a surfacing of repressed emotion, rays of sun piercing an opaque surface. “Each double stop should swell in and out, like waves at the shore with the tape sampled strings,” reads the notation. “Weary in feel.” A more profound tonal change comes with movement five, “Light to come,” a simple first-to-fourth chord progression emerging, a searching cello solo overhead, “hopeful and calm.” Throughout the ending phases of the piece, drones and bells continue to fade in and out, like after-echoes of trauma.