What is music, if not how we feel about it? This is Naomi Pinnock’s question. A self-described reductionist interested in music’s ‘essential elements’, the West Yorkshire composer has spent her career creating peculiar and intense music best understood through ourselves. In the times and places it affects, it routes its listener towards an experience. Unlike composers who only focus on the essence of sound, the thing on its own terms, Pinnock thinks of sound as something that gestures to listeners: ‘it’s not that sounds of and in themselves don’t interest me, but that I’m more interested in the effect of them within a gesture – which is why I will always remember more about how something made me feel rather than any interesting technical aspects.’ It’s not what sound is, but what it does.

Across genres, it is perhaps the most obvious way we relate to music: we can describe the visceral hold it has over us, the way it attaches itself to the moment – or even how it makes the moment. Writing music around remembering and misremembering, Pinnock seems to recognise something special in these kind of unknown musical experiences. Unlike those who are ‘interested in the sounds themselves’, her moments are harder to analyse, impossible to boil down. But we can feel them. At hcmf// 2019, she will be present a new work, commissioned by the festival, that explores ‘themes of absence and presence’. Pinnock sums up the piece with a typically powerful sense of vagueness, and cites the visceral, feeling writing of Virginia Woolf, as well as the poetry of Rachael Boast, as influences. This continues a long tradition of Pinnock referencing like-minded artists, those who have found fertile ground between definition and ambiguity.

Pinnock’s piece opens hcmf// 2019, putting the mysterious mark she’s left on the festival in recent years to the very fore. Paired with the German string quartet SONAR, the piece was written with EXAUDI member and soprano Juliet Fraser in mind – an artist who enjoys making the most of the grey area between artist intention and performer interpretation. Pinnock is just the artist for that: she honours her influences by making of them what exists in her imagination, and uses open spaces to invite on her musicians. Her own, personal relationship with the works of Woolf and Boast informs this new piece, much in the same way the paintings of Agnes Martin did for her 2015 work Lines and Spaces. Back then, she described how she ‘kept going back’ to Canadian Martin’s paintings, attracted to their ‘exquisitely simple’ nature. She was pulled to them – what else is there to it?

Pinnock was struck by how Agnes Martin’s art could evoke so much from so little, or as she put it, in ‘how much is possible from lines and spaces’. She composed her piece to reflect how Martin’s lines ‘evoke much more with simple delicate layering and beautiful imperfections’. A composer commended for cutting music down to its core elements, she reflected these miniature expressions in her composition, a work that meandered through a loose spectrum of overt ‘bold’ chords and others more ‘faint’. The piece often sounds like a chance meeting of stray tones, but it occasionally coalesces into a dramatic fanfare of trembling trills, appearing as fragmented shards of drama.

Having commissioned Lines and Spaces, pianist Richard Uttley described Pinnock’s work as ‘spacious and suggestive… dreaming, yet utterly precise in its language’. It is the perfect summary of Pinnock’s music: her abstract approach to sound is focused but fragmented, zooming its lens so close to the ‘core elements’ of sound that they lose their substance, their meaning, in the process, dissolving into something more evocative. ‘I’m interested in the spaces in-between, shadows or seemingly insubstantial vowel glides and what happens when they become the focus.’ With its scattered chords and momentary gasps of silence, Pinnock asked the listener to position themselves in the moment, where found find themselves, among her music.

The writers Pinnock has nodded to in her new work are as playful with language – as interested in considering its visceral essence, beyond the meaning it serves with – as she is with her own music. Pinnock has noted that she uses texts in composition in a way that makes them ‘chopped up, magnified, distorted, and stretched out’. Words are garbled until they have only remnants of their original function – lines of definition, and spaces of ambiguity. In this fragile space, Pinnock wants to remind us of the imperfectly unique ways we interpret, experience, and remember. Feeling comes to the front.


Photo (C) Amy Newiss