Poppy Ackroyd: Escapement
One can't help but be royally impressed with Poppy Ackroyd's debut album Escapement on purely production-related grounds. After all, every sound on the Edinburgh-based, classically trained composer and performer's recording, with the exception of a few field recordings (birds from the Outer Hebrides and rain from Scotland) was created using only either the piano or the violin. All seven tracks are combinations of conventional and prepared piano sounds (fingers, e-bows, and plectrums applied to the instrument's innards), violin, and beat patterns generated from hands, drumsticks, beaters and small cymbals applied to the frame, strings, or dampers of the grand piano. Armed with a laptop, digital recorder, and speakers, Ackroyd uses multi-tracking to simulate a chamber ensemble in remarkable manner, and at no time is one ever reminded that Escapement was produced entirely by a single individual.
But, of course, none of that would matter much if the material itself wasn't compelling in its own right, but Ackroyd needn't worry on that count. Her thirty-one-minute collection is a disarmingly lovely set of classically flavoured set-pieces that more than speak powerfully on her behalf. Even more critically, she shapes that abundance of generated sounds into sophisticated compositional form and arrangements; even better, there's no evidence of gratuitous self-indulgence but rather a discerning ear and intelligence at work.
The way she augments the pensive piano and violin patterns with rich percussive detail is deft, and her melodic talents are on full display in arresting set-pieces like “Glass Sea,” “Mechanism,” and “Aliquot.” The field recordings are hardly necessary when the plucked strings and piano playing convey the impression of “Rain” all by themselves, while the luscious bowed string playing captures the melancholy felt by the housebound individual watching the heavy downpour from a window. The recording's best moments are those where the violin playing features prominently as a strong counterpoint to the piano, as occurs during “Grounds,” and it's at such moments that Ackroyd's sound distances itself from someone like Hauschka, for example.
So who is Poppy Ackroyd and where did she come from? She's recorded and toured with Hidden Orchestra, has composed and performed live soundtracks for contemporary dance and theatre works, and collaborated with filmmakers, actors, and radio documentary producers, among others. Such biographical details fade into the background, however, when Escapement plays, as the formidable impression it makes renders such extra-musical considerations secondary if not irrelevant.