A album of slow drones, tension and release, Judith Hamann’s Shaking Studies is an interesting listen, a LP of four slow-moving, almost microtonal pieces that to open-eared listeners, are captivating.
Shaking Studies is a solo cello album from a cellist who’s studied under Charles Curtis, and worked alongside a wide range of players – but most notably La Monte Young, who’s own work on slow, lengthy pieces is a sonic touch point for the average listener here.
It opens with “A Reading” where Hamann’s arco playing takes the form of short, dissonant sawing, her playing building into squeaks and bangs. Minimalist in form, it slowly builds over five minutes, gathering intensity and energy, before fading it in a feedback-like drone. At moments it’s reminiscent of last year’s Ensemble Neon record Niblock/Lamb, which took similarly minimal pieces and played them with intensity: it doesn’t sound like much at first, but a careful listen and you can hear the energy and drive it takes to create short, staccato playing like Hamann’s.
Conversely, the two “Pulse Studies” take a different approach to the cello. The first has Hamann playing long, droning notes, first on one string, then on multiple. Soon, figures are bouncing off of each other and almost echoing, building into sonic figures that don’t quite match up. Indeed, the way they layer has a curious, almost atonal effect, similar to some of Steve Reich’s phase pieces like “Clapping,” where the way things don’t match and shift are the focus.
The second “Pulse Study” has Hamann going deeper into these layered sounds, her cello at times screeching and at others dipping into a rich, fuller tone. This one builds into a more structured sound, albeit one that’s shifting, almost fluid. Textures emerge and recede, but the way she makes her cello moan with her long, bowed lines gives the piece it’s centre.
Finally, the final piece is the six-minute “The Tender Interval.” It opens with a light cracking sound and slowly, Hamann’s cello enters the picture playing a long, bowed line. It grows into a deeper, fuller tone than elsewhere on the record, but with the cracking sounds at the edges, it feels almost fragile, fading out into sounds of shaking and shuddering, like a reel of film that’s come to it’s end.
Solo cello albums, especially ones of this bent, aren’t exactly a dime-a-dozen, but it’s interesting to compare Hamann’s playing to peers such as Josh Modney, who released Engage, a solo violin record with a similar tonal bent. Unlike him, however, Hamann’s not trying to re-interpret composers like Anthony Braxton, Tyler Brook or Bach – this is music that’s unmistakably her own, harsh yet rewarding in it’s own way.
Which is another way of saying Shaking Music isn’t an easy listen to casual listeners, and maybe even to some people who know their way around a cello. And it’s not something for everyone, either. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s worth the effort. This is the sort of album more patient, open-minded listeners can get lost in, a swirling and compelling haze of cello.