John Woolrich – In the Mirrors of Asleep

by 5:4

A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks.

But these too are curtailed before too long, sometimes back in the direction of melody, elsewhere through strange moments of loud chord blasts (emphatic rather than angry) but most often—or, at least, overall that’s how it sounds—into a dark place of low, brooding music, where tempo counts for little and notions of progression mean nothing at all. Notes don’t so much emerge from the depths as seem to be played down into them, and it’s here that Woolrich touches the nerve of grief most intimately. Nonetheless, the work’s engagement with death primarily arises from the semi-aimless but equally restless meandering back and forth between contrasting episodes, displaying a constant lack of contentment yet a continual need to utter something perhaps so as not to be engulfed in silence. Within such ostensibly simple juxtapositions one senses something very painful indeed.

This performance of In the Mirrors of Asleep was given in March 2012 at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Chamber Players, Alexandra Wood (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), Timothy Lines (clarinet) and Malcolm Wilson (piano).

Programme Note

I stumbled across the phrase ‘… in the mirrors of asleep…’ in a poem by Anne Stevenson. I suppose it is where we see the faces of the people we have lost. The piece is about eight minutes long and is broken music of whispers, ticking clocks, brooding chords and silences. In the Mirrors of Asleep was was commissioned by Dartington International Summer School and was written in memory of Corin Long.

—John Woolrich

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