When I reviewed Sydney pianist Sophie Hutchings‘ debut album Becalmed in 2010, I remarked that it was incredibly bold to start with an eleven and a half minute track (“Seventeen”, composed when the artist was that age). Now on her fourth release, Hutchings continues to defy expectations, occasionally adding choral-style vocals as texture. One needs a lot of self-confidence in order to do such a thing, but Hutchings has it in spades, having begun her career as a self-taught musician.
2016 might end up being The Year of the Piano, due to the increased popularity of Nils Frahm’s Piano Day and the floodgate of releases from 1631. Preservation has been Hutchings’ home since the beginning, and her patient release schedule (approximately every other year) continues to produce some of the genre’s best albums. While every other pianist seems to want to be Ólafur Arnalds (see this article), Hutchings is content to blaze her own path, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Arnalds & Frahm not because she sounds like them but because she’s that good ~ and has been since the start.
How to identify a Hutchings composition? A measured pace is one, as each track is as long as it needs to be. She’s not searching for singles, but for the best use of space and sound. Her music has always contained a great tenderness and warmth, as the piano seems more an extension of her hands than a separate entity. The notes themselves vary between flurry and filigree, while refusing to follow an A-B-A-B base. The addition of strings enhances these compositions, although a pure piano album would have been lovely to hear as well.
The new album adds an extra tone, which fellow reviewer James Catchpole identified in his excellent review at Fluid Radio as gothic. One can trace the pedigree of Wide Asleep to Hyperium’s Heavenly Voices compilations and the older output of the Prikosnovenie label: each heavy on fairy tales and dreams. The album is meant to reflect the liminal stage “between sleep and wakefulness”, and does so in magnificent fashion, often receding to a placid state before bursting into color and brightness (for example, at 2:35 of “Falling”). Whenever those choral voices arrive, one thinks of hidden processions, pixie dust, and Nemo in Slumberland. Anything can happen in the subconscious, and the often lilting pace sets the stage for fantastic imaginings. The album itself is like a dream; when one awakens, one remembers scenes and impressions, but not the whole. In this case, one remembers the gentleness, the comfort, the tucking in. No nightmares are here, no anxiety: just the soft comfort of a nightlight and the promise of playful adventures in the land of Nod. (Richard Allen)