Chosen One: Sophie Hutchings
Interview with Sophie Hutchings.
“…repetition engenders a freeing effect without expectations or obligations in what you the listener feels or thinks. That’s all I ever want from music.”
Words: Mark Carry
Sophie Hutchings is a pianist and composer from Sydney. Since 2010’s debut ‘Becalmed’ LP, the gifted Australian composer has developed her unique style of textured ambience and neo-classical bliss. Hutchings has released three instrumental works to date, ‘Becalmed’, ‘Night Sky’ and ‘White Light’, receiving fine recognition internationally for elegant and beautiful music compared to the likes of Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Peter Broderick and Dustin O’Hallloran.
‘Wide Asleep’ begins with a gentle pulsating drone amidst a soft whisper uttering “I think I can see.” ‘Dream Gate’ serves the fitting opening piece to Hutchings’ deeply moving and revelatory latest work: the repeated mantra heralds the vivid sense of discovery that beautifully infiltrates the human space. The achingly beautiful piano melody feels at once familiar and mysteriously unknown: a towering modern-classical exploration ascends into one’s subconscious and inner-most self. A searching quality permeates throughout the record as larger realms of sound and feeling is masterfully attained by the gifted Sydney-based composer.
The added instrumentation of opera vocal samples further heightens the blissful transcendence that shares the cosmic spirit of Alice Coltrane and Laraaji’s empowering, celestial works. The graceful, fleeting waves of harmonies and piano motifs of ‘Falling’ holds a gentle resonance upon the listener akin to the infinite ocean waves. During the final section, the slowed-down tempo of strings blends effortlessly with Hutchings’ deeply poignant piano motifs, forming one cohesive whole of stunning beauty. Towards the low sun.
One of ‘Wide Asleep’s great hallmarks is the sheer multitude of sublime moments distilled within one single piece. For example, the companion pieces of ‘Memory I’ and ‘Memory II’ unfolds a vast haven of soul-stirring rapture: the mesmeric choral harmonies of ‘Memory II’ continually build, serving the record’s life-affirming crescendo. Like a river finding its sea, the musical undercurrent of embracing patterns, warm textures of ‘Wide Asleep’ runs deep and ventures further into the cosmos than ever before.
‘Wide Asleep’ is out now on Preservation.
Interview with Sophie Hutchings.
Congratulations Sophie on your formidable new body of work, ‘Wide Asleep’. Following on from your rich tapestry of recorded output, ‘Wide Asleep’ feels like the crowning jewel of your storied career thus far. As ever, a deep musical undercurrent permeates throughout these particular recordings that drags the listener deep into the musical patterns, textures and shapes like ripples cast by the ocean. Please discuss the making of the new record – and more particularly the writing of these compositions – and indeed the particular space or moment(s) in time these piano compositions flickered into glittering life?
Sophie Hutchings: I love your beautiful description of ‘Wide Asleep’. Thank you so much. There is quite a lot of undercurrents that permeate throughout. True!
Writing for me is always a very vague and unconscious process. So, actual visible moments I find more a challenge to reflect on or recall. I usually connect with my pieces in retrospect.
Wide Asleep was a volcano waiting to happen so the writing process was a bit of a musical purge and happened quite quickly. I had a definite vision of how I wanted this album to be from beginning to end. The previous albums unfolded as I went along whereas with “Wide Asleep” I had an overall vision from the start and I worked on achieving getting to that end point. I wrote the bare bones of the pieces in a sort of hasty fashion and then basically worked on structuring the other musical layers thereafter.
The process was a little like being seasick; once the tidal wave settled, I felt a sense of reprieve. (As in I got all the piano pieces written and demoed). I then wrote out the string, vocal and soundscapes in small waves. There was a lot of melodies circulating around in my head throughout the journey of Wide Asleep. Sometimes it would be whilst in bed so I’d get up and record the melody so as not to let it slip away, which happens. Other times it was just through focused playing and composing over many cups of tea by day, red wine by night allowing itself to form.
We recorded a lot of the piano and strings live. I added the textural soundscape elements and vocal harmonies after that at one my favourite local studios (Oceanic studios). It has a very warm and homey atmosphere. One of its unique aspects is a huge window that looks out onto a typically Australian bush setting. I love that. So, I just faced upwards looking out to the scenery and practiced my vocals and we hit the record button…
The added elements of divine opera vocal samples further heighten the ambient dimension of ‘Wide Asleep”s sonic landscape. For example, the opener ‘Dream Gate’ and hypnotic pulses of ‘Falling’ contains such sublime vocal passages that meld so effortlessly with the piano instrumentation. Can you talk me through the various instrumentation you have utilized on the new record, Sophie and indeed any challenges or difficulties posed by the layering of new elements to a particular composition?
SH: I’ve always enjoyed the dreamy ethereal side of music. One that you can’t quite pinpoint yet evokes a certain feeling. I wanted to take that element a little further with the use of harmonies and implement older sounding instruments like the Harpsichord and bells. A little bit of drone. I also utilised an opera vocal sound from one of my keyboards to create a repetitive hypnotic pulse in “Falling”. I felt those sort of subtleties lifted the pieces just slightly and have them waiver or hover for a moment in time. I really liked the idea of using vocal harmonies more so as a form of instrumentation and felt it would suit the theme of the album so I wrote some voicings out on piano and worked on transposing that into my vocal harmonies.
The vocal harmonies were looming from the onset so it felt right, without them unduly taking over. They are an added essence. It’s almost a way of coming up for air before plunging into the unknown again.
I must say the closing section of ‘Falling’ in which the vocal harmony motif returns for the last time, signals one of the record’s most captivating moments…I would love for you to discuss the importance of repetition in your music, and in turn, how you ‘see’ or visualize music? I always feel that a certain gravitational pull or hold on the listener occurs through repetition inside music.
SH: I am a massive fan of repetition in music. Repetition fastens the mind into a gentle trance where you can let go and not feel affected by your surroundings or time itself. In a society where time demands so much of us, repetition engenders a freeing effect without expectations or obligations in what you the listener feels or thinks. That’s all I ever want from music.
I don’t visualise music as such. In a way with the early stages of writing, I think my mind goes into shut down mode which is why I find it difficult to remember exact moments of writing. If I do see music, it always comes in a very hazy dimension and will slowly evolve into its own likeness from there which is what happened with Wide Asleep. It started to take on a theme of its own as the album grew, evoking those intangible gateways between sleep and wakefulness. Those moments where what actually feels real isn’t…. Perhaps sneaking in that other worldly element.
Has your compositional approach changed or altered in any way from previous records such as ‘Night Sky’ or ‘Becalmed’? ‘Wide Asleep’ was produced by yourself, solely. I am very interested in this stage of the music-making process and what transitions or developments these compositions undertook during this stage?
SH: The early concepts or ideas always seem to have a similar pattern of approach. With the previous albums, I tended to write more as I went along. Wide Asleep was determined from the beginning. The full vision was in the forefront of my mind and I trusted myself to attain that end goal. With Wide Asleep I had this inward sense of urgency… I found that sense of urgency a challenge to contend with as the production took a little longer however you always learn and gain new experiences each time.
Collaboration is another vital part to the process, and your close friends Tim Whitten (engineer), Peter Hollo (cello) and Jay Kong (violin) bring so much to the table, as always. I just love how such a deep communication – almost innate – exists between these different voices that forms one cohesive whole of utter transcendence. Can you recount your memories of recording with these guests and the headspace you all must inhabit when these parts all come together?
SH: Having worked with Peter and Jay for a while now is a real asset. It has become very instinctive. The musical chemistry between us is something that is very easily communicated. Jay and Peter have a very sensitive approach to understanding the way I write music and make it very easy for me when we all sit down together to map out the process and contemplate their parts. Occasionally I have a weird way of putting my melodies together but they’ve become accustomed to it! I love them so much for that.
Tim being a long-standing family friend has observed my pattern of composing from a young age and has watched it grow and wholeheartedly supported my style and process. I can have a tendency to be quite timid with my approach. This time around I had tunnel vision which took Tim a while to get his head around but once he did he knew and understood where I wanted to be and we worked as a team to get there. He’s very intuitive when mixing instrumental music which I guess is why bands like The Necks continually go back to him as do I.
The euphoric crescendo of ‘Memory II’ with its gorgeous choral refrain and mesmerising piano lines serves one of many defining moments. These two compositions, ‘Memory I’ and ‘Memory II’ are obviously very significant and are the heart to part B. The sequencing of the record I feel works wonderfully and the layering and aesthetics of the two parts – A & B – creates such a moving and powerful journey. I wonder are any of these pieces borne from old melodies you have had in the vaults, so to speak?
SH: I always have unfinished pieces sitting in vaults! Sometimes I randomly revisit them. There’s quite a few demos waiting to be woken from their slumber sitting on hard drives…
In this case Memory I was half written and I ran into a wall with it so to speak. It didn’t move for a little while so I left it alone, then one night I sat down with it and it germinated and took off so it was either going to be one really long piece or could be consumed in two parts which I think works with the astral vocals taking over from the darkish coloured middle eastern tonality of the strings. It picks it up and sweeps it into another dream state territory though still in the same key so the journey has a connection to its former memory and goes back to that in the outro of Memory I.. It’s like a Memory that expands and travels, then gets revisited ….
Can you shed some light on the influences or inspirations you feel found their way into the ‘Wide Asleep’ sound world, Sophie?
SH: I was listening to a lot of old Gamelan music, Indian Classical Raga and Jazz which is nothing like Wide Asleep but subconsciously things can infiltrate the subconscious. It’s the way our being then formulates that expression. Different music can still relate to each other. It can be like the sentiments of Indie Rock vs the music of Opera. They can evoke a similar feeling. Perhaps it works the same? I grew up listening to extreme polar opposites in styles of music. One side of the house was Jazz and the other Indie rock. It was a war of the worlds between my Dad and my older Brothers. From a young age though I was writing the kind of music I write now. I’m still not sure where that comes from. At times it frustrated me that I attempted changing it when I was younger but it’s something I’ve recognised comes from within me and I should enjoy embracing it. It’s just another way of me articulating without having to phrase them into words.
Lastly, I must ask you about the beautiful solo piano full-length ‘Drift’. This forms such a perfect sister companion to ‘Wide Asleep’ with its marked intimacy and ethereal quality, a magical spell is cast with each delicate piano note. It feels as if this was created in one sitting, and effectively feels like one large piece. Can you discuss these compositions and how much of a role improvisation played in the inception of ‘Drift’?
SH: These were all layered late night recordings that were half improvised / half composed. It was a very organic relaxed unpressured approach between the walls of my lounge room using the damper pedal out of convenience but also for its tonally soft tranquil effect… It’s the sleepy sister of Wide Asleep indeed.
‘Wide Asleep’ is out now on Preservation.