There’s obviously something procedural going on in this music, probably more than two or three things at once, but I’m buggered if I can tell you what they are.
Although only 30 minutes long, TIDE is split over two discs. That’s because it sort of exists in two separate versions: one as a trio for oboe d’amore, clarinet and cello ( TIDE proper); and secondly as three separate solos, Burnham Air for oboe d’amore, Tide for cello, and Sky for clarinet and electronics. Disc B contains the three solos, disc A the composite trio. The piece is composed as series of waves, of dynamic, of pitch, of rhythm, of tessitura, of density, and so on. There is a sense that loops are being used, but at a level of interlocking complexity that is hard to make out. Waves of one sort or another overlap, producing cascading effects of beating patterns and interferences. If that makes it sound like Lucier, it’s not really; for all its superficial simplicity this isn’t music that is easily summarised.
I’m a contrarian, so I listened to disc B first. Burnham Air has a Finnissy-like quality about it, the hard-edges of the English pastoral; Birtwistle even, buried. Some of that is the flinty sound of the oboe d’amore, but that’s not the only factor in play – Weeks’s sequences of trills, arpeggios and runs (versions of each other viewed through different telescopes), following each other in a manner that sounds both mechanical and organic, achieve a kind of permanent impermanence, like clouds or sea, central London architecture, or the industrial North.
(When I profiled James’s music on these pages a couple of years ago, I claimed that he had a particularly English voice, and I haven’t changed my mind on that.)
Many of the qualities of Burnham Air are carried over into the other two solo pieces. Sky overlays a slowly drifting clarinet line with six recordings of itself, until a single melody becomes a waft of sine-tone like sounds. Tide for solo cello mediates, as Evan Johnson’s typically elegant liner notes describe, ‘between the swelling placidity of Sky and the penetrating insistence of Burnham Air ‘. That is, it has the slow motion, but adds the abrasive timbre of a curved bow playing across four strings simultaneously. There are dimensions and dimensions here: not only the frequency of the waves, the speed of their component particles, their amplitude and their resolution (from glissando to arpeggio), but also the overtone spectrum of each sound, bright and focused for the oboe d’amore, broad and multi-coloured for the cello. The more one listens, the more one is impressed at how much variety Weeks has built in to what began as such simple inspiration.
When I listened to all three together, the musical mechanics became both more delineated and more obscure. The sense of interlocking waves – accidental, since the three parts aren’t coordinated in performance – strengthens, but at the same time the mystery of what is actually going on just gets deeper. Something that should surely by now have become familiar is lit in entirely new ways.
TIDE was released in May, and my copy has been sat on my desk since then. I listened to it then, but it seemed entirely unsuited to what turned out to be a long, hot summer. Now, as we turn definitely to autumn, its tone and construction seem right for the changing of a season.