Most of us have experienced music’s mental health benefits, in one way or another. It can make us happy, calm us down or even help break us out of a creative slump. The reverse is equally true. The wrong music can be agitating, sometimes deeply so. Pop music is an obvious example, but sometimes even recordings we love can have an unsettling effect.
Australian cellist and composer Judith Hamann’s Shaking Studies explores this in some detail. The “performance-based research project” explores “the relationship between trauma and shaking, sound’s potential as both a therapeutic and violent actant on the body, sphygmology and the performer/instrument dyad.” That description is from Dr. Hamann’s 2018 paper under the same title. (Sphygmology is the scientific study of the pulse.)
Her paper, and the album that accompanies it, recognizes shaking as “a kind of rhythm” and recasts it as musical subject rather than performance impediment. It is a big idea that sets this new recording apart.
The album is in three sections. Our first impression comes from “A Reading,” a five-and-a-half minute presentation of Hamann’s shaking concept. Her cello takes on a pulsing, percussive quality that transforms the instrument. For me, it is less an expression of human anxiety than it is an exhibition of mastery over the instrument. Hamann pulls a deeply unconventional sound from her cello, and it is gripping.
The second section is “Pulse Study,” a 30-minute work presented in two parts. It will appeal both to fans of new classical and drone compositions. The tremors emerge as the piece evolves, but far more subtly than in “A Reading.” It is a moving centerpiece, remarkably so given the project’s academic origin. Hamann delivers her thesis beautifully.
Her paper describes the work’s focus on “micro and macro pulsing: tremor, vibrato, wolf tones and complex partial activity.” As an example of how unconventional her performance style is here, she explains that the instrument’s end pin can quiver if fully extended and unanchored. “In fact, bowing the lower parts of the cello, endpin, tailpiece, tailpiece wires, will create different kinds of shaking, making the whole body move in a kind of subtle elliptical orbit around its own fixed point to the ground,” writes Hamann.
The recording ends with “The Tender Interval,” a suitably titled six-minute closer that pulls its listener in tight. It is exquisitely detailed.
On the same day Shaking Studies landed, Hamann released a companion recording, Music for Cello and Humming. In addition to a pair of Hamann compositions, it features works written for her by Sarah Hennies and Anthony Pateras. It’s not difficult to hear how the introduction of humming connects to the shaking study. The performer’s connection to the instrument is explored more fully here, as is the balance between the conceptual and emotional described above.
On “Loss,” a 28-minute piece composed by Hennies, Hamann hums beyond her vocal range. The tight link between her instrument and voice – strained as it is at times – creates a genuinely unique result.