Bethan Morgan-Williams – In Kenopsia

by 5:4

Behind today’s Advent Calendar door is a short electroacoustic work by Bethan Morgan-Williams. The unusual word in the work’s title originates from one of my favourite linguistical sources, the wonderful Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, where ‘kenopsia’ (presumably a blending of the Greek words ‘kenosis’, indicating an act of emptying or purging, and ‘optikos’, referencing seeing) is defined as

the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.

Perhaps, in the ongoing wake of nearly two years of pandemic and a variety of partial or complete lockdowns, this is a sorrow a bit less obscure than it might once have been. Not that Morgan-Williams would have had this in mind when composing the piece, as it dates from 2017, back when life was infinitely more normal than at present.

The work’s 4½-minute duration plays out like a late-night, noir-ish improvisatory soliloquy in which a trombone roams within a landscape combining prerecorded and live electronics. The nature of its song is searching – literally: the instruction in the score is “Investigatively” – not necessarily looking for something specific but moving through a space that doesn’t merely seem foreign but appears to be actively forming and re-forming around the player in real time, partly in response to its actions.

Perhaps the aspect of In Kenopsia that i like most, and paradoxically find most powerful, is its quiet, undemonstrative character. The trombone is both literally and figuratively muted (at first, also marked sotto voce), not overtly melancholic, merely inquisitive, initially exploring its environment with a demeanour that could almost be described as neutral. That neutrality, combined with its attenuated dramatic quality, gives the impression, early on at least, that acoustic and electronic are occupying separate worlds existing in parallel. Only gradually does a sense of connection become apparent, the trombone warming up and appearing to respond to the chittering, pointillist atmosphere forming around it, particularly as it develops, expands and thickens, evidently responding back.

Furthermore, we slowly start to appreciate that there’s a ghostly secondary voice in the space, the spectre of a violin emerging from the electronics and moving at the cusp of identifiability. However, Morgan-Williams keeps the emphasis on the foreground, on melody, restricting the electronics (aside from the ghost) to a half-tangible language of blips, clunks and fug, particles of hauntological detritus. Having begun ostensibly neutral, two elements in parallel, the ending of In Kenopsia is surprisingly moving. The trombone’s tune becomes tender and intimate, duetting directly with the spectral violin and perhaps, at the last, even merging with it, becoming absorbed into reverberant shadow.

This performance of In Kenopsia was given by trombonist Tony Boorer with Bethan Morgan-Williams on live electronics.

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