The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.
It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The Field is Woven this sequence sounds positively hurried.
It’s one of a number of points throughout the piece that reveal how much intensity and drama can emerge from what appear to be extremely basic and simple elements arranged in such a measured fashion. Another comes after those opening five minutes, when Pinnock segues into a lovely shimmering band that feels like it wants to resolve but instead leads elsewhere. That radiated serenity, but its opposite comes a few minutes later after a big pause, a clustered chord that in the way it lingers takes on a distinctly threatening air. It’s this, i think, that contributes to making the music’s subsequent increase in speed, density and harmonic complexity feel so momentous.
The way the piece progresses into its coda is through a beautiful collection of chords sufficiently rich that they sound unresolved and final at the same time. The orchestra briefly restates their main idea one final time before yielding to high bowed vibe notes, a new sound in this piece that acts like a thin but brilliant streak of gold leaf.
The work’s title is taken from a quotation describing Agnes Martin’s work by artist Donald Judd. It’s a description that Martin herself evidently rejected completely, though from the perspective of Pinnock’s music the phrase seems particularly appropriate. The word ‘field’ in particular, while it connotes various things, brings to mind the world of electromagnetism; it’s not hard to hear the way the work’s elements push and pull against each other as being akin to ideas of repulsion and attraction in relation to an unseen force, with everything held in a kind of active, humming equilibrium.
The world première of The Field is Woven took place at the 2018 Tectonics festival in Glasgow, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.