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John Lely: The Harmonics of Real Strings

John Eyles By

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The Harmonics of Real Strings is amazing, in the original sense of the word—it is packed full of moments that cause genuine amazement. Yet the simplicity of its conception and execution are both breathtakingly audacious, to the extent that describing it risks making it sound mundane. Nonetheless, here goes. The album consists of four realisations of the title composition by John Lely, played unaccompanied on cello by Anton Lukoszevieze, the founder and leader of the group Apartment House. Each realisation is a prolonged glissando along the full length of one bowed string, from the top down to the bridge, using light finger pressure (also known as "harmonic" pressure). As a cello has four strings, there are four realisations, one per string.

Lely first attracted attention as a pianist when he regularly attended Eddie Prevost's weekly improvising workshop and was featured on the album 396 (Matchless, 2000) alongside fellow attendees saxophonist Seymour Wright and Yann Charaoui on cymbals and sampler. Despite his improv background, Lely evolved into a composer and he says that now he finds himself thinking more about things that can be written down, and his compositions have moved from verbal notation to being notated on staff paper. In the case of the composition featured here, Lely says that he sometimes explains the piece orally but the score continues to serve as a useful point of reference. It clearly allows the performer considerable leeway, as Lukoszevieze's four versions here vary in duration from just over eleven minutes to well over sixteen and a half minutes. Judging by the numbers of them, the cellist gradually took longer over each one.

The realisations were recorded in February 2014, in the music department of the University of East Anglia. From the photograph of the recording on the Another Timbre website, the recording was in a large—probably resonant—space. Although the recording level is comparatively low, the sound quality is first rate and remains so even if the music is turned up to reveal its fine detail. Given the nature of the composition, each realisation has an underlying drone-like quality that is very easy on the ear—but can never be taken for granted. Lely's fascination with long strings lies in the variety of sounds that can be produced during one glissando. As he says, "A string can have many strange and wonderful characteristics, some predictable, others less so, depending on how it is activated." And therein lies the amazement of this recording.

Against the background drone of each glissando, a range of unexpected—and sometimes inexplicable—sounds appear. The methodology of using light finger pressure throughout each glissando means that a harmonic sounds every time the pressure is applied at a node on the string, and these can be heard with ease. In addition, other less predictable resonances of the cello occur when least expected, keeping the listener in a heightened state of anticipation which makes for an exciting listening experience. Despite its experimental nature, the whole thing never sounds remotely like a Physics experiment but makes fascinating and enthralling music which handsomely repays repeated listening—a near-perfect marriage of science and art. Bravo.

Track Listing: Four IV; Three III; Two II; One I.

Personnel: Anton Lukoszevieze: cello.

Title: The Harmonics of Real Strings | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Another Timbre

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