The viol de gamba, a popular instrument from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, looking a little like a cello (but with more strings), was the unusual starting point for this sequence of carefully-constructed compositions.
Using a loop pedal to develop a varied series of rhythms, and overlaying the basic pulse effect with sounds from the classical (trumpets, harps, violins) and the contemporary (analogue synths, drum machines), plus some sparingly- and intelligently-incorporated gongs and karimbas, Thomas William Hill creates a rich but never over-lush set of works, varying in pace and dynamism, that sustains interest throughout.
It’s a challenge to meld widely-differing sounds without losing individual details and nuances, and it’s one very well met by Hill from opener “Carriages”, with its slightly sinister initial overtones before the introduction of a forceful yet not ever-emphatic drum rhythm, through an appealingly diverse nine tracks that are a well thought-through mix of creative but never self-indulgent experimentalism. For all the variety of instrumentation, Hill’s disciplined control, as on the energetic “Furnace” with its vigorous drive, ensures that shifts in momentum are consistently well-timed.
It’s a measure of the level of the successful integration of so many sounds that one never gets a feeling of there being any suggestion of gratuitous exotica. Harp and trumpet interplay on “Curvature” is very effectively handled, before the introduction of a freer sense of direction. The impression here and, indeed, across the album is of a richness that always stays this side of extravagance and, at times, reminds one of the sonorous beauty and rhythmic ingenuity of some of Toumani Diabate’s kora recordings.
The shifts between the simple and the more complex represent one key to the success of this album. “Tongue” and “Willow” are unalloyed delights. At times, such as in “Filament” and “Whorl”, one becomes more aware of the baroque roots (Bach’s famous cello suites come to mind) of Hill’s pieces, as ideas are worked through systematically but never wholly predictably from an initial rhythmic figure.
The viol de gamba is unlikely to make a comeback into a contemporary orchestra, but Grains of Space illustrates what an astute, historically-aware artist can achieve through an original view of aspects of the classical tradition combined with a modern, informed, cosmopolitan, musical sensibility.