Christopher Roberts: Last Cicada Singing
Reading about Christopher Hobbs' Sudoku 82 proves to be an entirely different experience than listening to it. Hobbs, an English experimental composer and pioneer of British systems music (also an early member of the Scratch Orchestra and AMM), composed the piece utilizing random procedures derived from Sudoku puzzles and Apple's GarageBand software (Hobbs has produced over 125 pieces since he began working on the Sudoku series in 2005). In the composer's own words, “I choose the sounds I want and the overall duration, but then let the numbers determine what goes where, how many times, how long, how much silence, and so on. Sudoku 82 used a number of piano loops played on eight pianos at an extremely slow tempo, the result being that the pianists seem to be frozen in time.”
If one were to banish all such background detail from one's mind and broach the single-movement work on purely music terms, one would hear it as a beautiful meditation of spacious design and wistful character. Reverberant sustain bleeds into the generous rests between the piece's single notes and chords, and, as performed by Los Angeles pianist Bryan Pezzone, the haunting, rather impressionistic work exudes elegance in a restrained presentation that sounds more often like it involves the playing of a single piano rather than eight. Sudoku 82 also feels organic and free-floating, no matter the formal strategies involved in its production, a fact that startles all the more when a review of Hobbs's previous projects is undertaken. He infamously participated in a complete performance of Erik Satie's Vexations with Gavin Bryars in Leicester, and Hobbs's own compositions include Duchamp-influenced musical readymades such as The Remorseless Lamb (which involves parts of Bach's “Sheep May Safely Graze” being re-arranged by random means) and Aran, wherein the note-to-note system derives from the knitting pattern for an Aran sweater. Needless to say, Sudoku 82, which is issued by Cold Blue in a classy CD single format, is dramatically different from those works.
The other CD single, Last Cicda Singing, presents four intimate pieces for solo qin (a zither-like Chinese instrument) composed and performed by Christopher Roberts, who developed his qin mastery while living and teaching in Taiwan and whose double bass-based Trios for Deep Voices also appears on Cold Blue. In accompanying notes, Roberts cites the tradition of Chinese scholars who took their qins to the mountains—the idea being that nature would seep into the music they composed—and developed string techniques that would capture the movements of natural phenomena (e.g., birds, insects, streams).
Roberts' material merges a personal style that feels open to improvisation with the influence of folk materials associated with the Taiwan region (the opening piece, “Remote Stories,” for instance, is based on an old song dear to the Star Mountains people of Papua New Guinea). “The Channel,” in which Roberts attempts to capture the movement of ocean currents and tides, shows how much the qin can resemble a nylon-string guitar, especially when it involves bluesy slide playing. “Last Cicada Singing” finds Roberts adding percussive effects (e.g., knocks, scratching) to his qin playing in a piece that can be experienced as a explorative journey of contrasts—quiet vs. loud, abrupt turns vs. relaxed meander—or, if one prefers, as an aural rendering of Taiwanese cicadas calling out to one another during the night from distant mountains, as their songs gradually fade away as the night grows darker. Like Sudoku 82, Last Cicda Singing is a recording for a single instrument and so naturally feels intimate; the recording is so intimate, in fact, that one hears Roberts breathing alongside his playing during the brief “Travelling Alone.”