There are no letters on the front cover of this release, just a picture of a boy. It seems to be that artless thing, a random snapshot from a family holiday or a day out. The child sits outdoors in front of a grassy bank at the edge of a stony river or a beach, gathering stones and stacking them on top of each other. Lost in distraction, maybe he’s trying to see if the pebbles fit together somehow, or just enjoying the play of the early evening light across their surfaces. Simple joys.
The pieces within are a gathering as well, half-remembered phrases, bursts of enthusiasm, and a few well-worn ideas or gestures taken out and given a few more goes. The material is laid bare to dry bones of sound, with composer Andrew Hamilton himself the only credited performer, singing and playing violin (and presumably backing keyboard in product #1), with everything cleanly mixed and produced by the Ergodos crew. There’s still a jagged freshness to the sound, so at times he might actually be singing and accompanying himself at once.
This is an album that raises all sorts of questions about what we do when we listen to music (or play it, or write about it, for that matter). How do we know what (we think) we know? Where do all ‘our’ ideas come from? The idea of a musical personality is turned in on itself, like watching reality tv, as if one is being forced to listen to his inner musings at length or hear his improvised warm-ups. There he is, making terrible inside jokes about music classes in a, or teasingly personifying ‘The Spirit of Art’ in the opening track of the same name.
Like a conceptual artist let loose in a recording studio, Hamilton’s sense of ironic self-consciousness takes centre-stage, and along the way there are subtle digs at the legacy of past musical identities. In May Hamilton sings (and translates) lyrics by Heinrich Heine, whose wry words – indeed, these very words – were originally used by Robert Schumann (an artist who still defies biographers) to open his song cycle on ‘a poet’s life’. What once suggested bittersweet Romanticism now dares to emerge, blinking, awkward, as raw words of hope.
The sense of artless whimsicality continues in i and i, a ‘duet’ for Hamilton and his younger self. The former boy soprano, on an old recording, ardently sings a once-popular Handel arrangement, the song ‘Silent Worship’. Alongside, the present composer is heard loosely singing through the same material but with Handel’s original words (from the opening scene of his opera Tolomeo – in which a man, washed up on shore, sees a woman and falls in love, not that that has much relevance here…).
The boy is clearly singing for and with his teacher at the piano, his responsiveness and technique already coming into focus, while the other, newer, singer is alone, and detached from the material. For some musicians, living through this darkly separated present, of course, the comparison hardens painfully.
Between these two tracks, the hymn-like product #1 offers an extended reflection on gratitude and absence. It becomes an exchange without ending because there is no response. Rapidly going round in circles, the repetitiveness takes over, becoming an obsessive pattern crying out for a glitch to reorder or scatter the data into bits.
Entangling the human and technological in a personable, even ingratiating, way, ‘JOY’ is a recording project that poses, deflects, engages, and even dares to enjoy the difficulties of a cultural moment. Like a mirror, like those pebbles, what you get from it depends on what you bring…