Winter Shore liner notes by Michael Hicks
Hearing Benjamin Sabey's music, one senses that he is, to use Toru Takemitsu's lovely phrase, "confronting silence." One cannot predict what any confrontation will entail, of course. Confrontations take many forms: encounter, challenge, transaction, even embrace. The mystery of Sabey’s music is in not knowing which form the confrontation will take.
Historically, composers use counterpoint, an interlacing of voices, to throw a net around silence. One hears it in Sabey's music, too—though transformed.ﾠ His counterpoint seems indeed a curious sort of monody: not the weaving of disparate lines into a strong fabric, but the evisceration of solitary gestures into their component parts. Visual analogues come to mind. Sometimes we experience in his counterpoint a prism, breaking light into discrete colors. Sometimes it is a microscope, whose power of magnification keeps being increased. Sometimes an x-ray, in which the bones beneath the surface become visible.
Such gestures seem to leap from the imagery of the titles: Owl, Phoenix, Arc Flicker, Ecstatic Aspen, Winter Shore, and Espejismo (Spanish for “mirage” or “illusion”). There is no sense of formalism, of merely sounding or resounding shapes for their own sake. Yet the sound is almost fiercely controlled by what we might call an imposed functionality, although one that rarely rises to the surface. It feels submerged just beneath a flickering surface. Still, the language of each work has its distinct dialect, which, like all strongly regional dialects, subverts the "rules" (of grammar, syntax, conjugation, etc.) to fluid, colorful idiomatic expressivity.ﾠ "Merely" linguistic structure submits to sonorous personality.
Much of Sabey’s musical personality springs from a kind of exaltation of embellishment into the latent structure of which I spoke.ﾠ Indeed, sometimes one hears Sabey almost magically transfiguring the evanescence of ornamentation into a sense of solidity.ﾠ Twinges of ecstasy distill into an architecture of sonic bliss.ﾠ It is as if the cornices of a house had evolved into its foundation.ﾠ One hears this especially in Ecstatic Aspen, which, while it superficially evokes echoes of romantic pianisms,ﾠ begins with the medieval conceit of long drones, voices flitting above them, giving the listener a layering and stratification of time worlds.ﾠ As the work proceeds, one discovers (as in many of Sabey’s pieces) a kaleidoscope, whose concatenations are at once rhapsodic, full of whimsical slippage, yet intensely logical.
It is the architecture of the natural world—Sabey's chief inspiration—in which everything grows or erupts, and also decays and hardens. Yet that ever-changing architecture seems, to our human scale of temporal perception, to be stable—at least until it undergoes some punctuation of its seeming equilibrium (to borrow from Stephen Jay Gould's phrase about evolution).ﾠ The punctuations in Sabey’s music strike me as gentle, nudging, rarely cataclysmic.ﾠ (And in that they arguably reflect the personal temperament of their maker.). The nature that Sabey looks to for inspiration is not the one of geologic upheaval, but of shaking leaves, flapping wings, rippling water, and gusty winds.
Sabey's Owl, to take one example, is a creature of paradox, of flight yet not-flight, of brooding that unfolds into aerodynamics.ﾠ The swooping opening develops into different time frames of descent.ﾠ The sliding tones seem to dive, then settle and forage.ﾠ And yet something in the overall design of the work seems more Apollonian, than Dionysian, despite the flurrying of its surface.ﾠ Similarly, Ecstatic Aspen bespeaks that same sort of dual character, florid but always bending to intellectual constraints—or vice versa.ﾠ Whenever a triad attempts to emerge, a rogue pitch asserts itself.ﾠ If a piece could portray gentle recalcitrance, it would be this one.
One need not mention, I suppose, the virtuosity on which all this and other sonic scurrying in this collection must rely. Sabey teaches us lessons about the micro-potentialities of even the most portable handheld machines—flute, guitar, etc.—that never lapse into technical self-gratification. There are even passages of quasi-exoticism—from flamenco to snake-charming. But virtuosity as eloquence remains the chief lesson in Sabey’s soloistic writing.
Still, it is in the subsuming of individual showiness into collaborative effort where Sabey’s language deepens, I believe. I speak of the distinctly three-dimensional Winter Shore, which sonically inspects and inventories the plots and subplots of the drama of cold ocean confronting land. Full of friction and ghostly incantations, this work deploys one haunting gesture after the next, but with, again, an ineluctable logic.ﾠ Still, what one notices mostﾠin it might be the "sociology" of the work, in which instrumental voices play out small contests and negotiations, ending with a tentative withdrawal of all players into a muteness that is pitched somewhere between grudging and resolved. The ending of this work confronts silence in the most overt way.
Yet Sabey’s voice—a truly distinctive one—resonates well beyond the ostensible “ending” of each piece. The messages it pronounces are so incandescent and beguiling, even unnerving at times, that one hesitates to begin the next listening without a spell—I use the word advisedly—of introspection.