Does ingenuity of composition heighten enjoyment of it? Perhaps an age-old question dividing certain camps of music aficionado. With his latest solo release, violinist and composer Christopher Tignor has moved on from the meta-narrative concept behind 2014’s Thunder Lay Down in the Heart to a performance-focused set inspired by a novel playing technique. Along A Vanishing Plane offers an unusual group of instruments combining to create a focused, drawn-out set, subdued in both mood and intonation. The means of creation are impressive – even inspiring. They also serve to both elevate and constrain the creation itself.
Central to his new playing technique is a tuning fork, with which Tignor both strikes percussion and then triggers synth tones and melodies from his bespoke computer software by holding its resonant end to the bridge of his violin. The percussive setup comprises kick drum, hi-hat, bells and triangles, while further melody is coaxed from one-handed, pizzicato violin playing as well as traditional bowing. No loops, overdubs or clicks are used, as Tignor sought to free himself from the ‘grid’ of electronic music. Conjured from all this is a set of simple and singular-sounding acoustic pieces augmented with triggered electronics. There is something almost illusory about the performances in the videos that accompany the record (the ‘video album’), as sounds emerge that seem far beyond the scope of Tignor’s touch.
Just hearing the record, however, is a notably different experience. Along A Vanishing Plane is solemn of mood and sedate of tempo, with silence forming a key part of most pieces. These traits are most pronounced in “Artifacts of Longing”, presented in three parts totalling over 17 minutes. Here the violin plays its most dominating role, gushing its lament in melodies that swoon over growling electronics. Percussion is notably absent from the second part, making its return to close out part three alongside waves of mallet playing all the more impactful. Combined with the majesty of the violin, this sorrowful passage is the album’s high point. But it’s not the most typical.
Fronting Western Vinyl’s LP promotion, “Shapeshifting” is the most condensed display of the composer’s newfound dexterity. Tignor produces a wisp of melody with his fork between synchronous strikes of triangle and kick (plus obligatory synth swell – a trigger that outstays its welcome over the course of the set). One dies away before the other re-enters, creating a drawn-out dialogue. After a minute, the percussion becomes more vocal, crafting with the hi-hat a rhythmic exchange in fives and sixes. On record, this passage is calming; on video, palpable is the concentration required of Tignor for such polyrhythmic performance, keeping his amorphous melodies singing in time with the deceptively complex percussion. The passage becomes something more intense, its effect on the listener changed.
This contrast manifests even in the record’s greatest calm – the coda to closer “The Will and the Waiting”, a soporific drone of electronics and triangle tremolo that Tignor says culminates ‘a meditation on fortitude and patience’. The description certainly rings true for the composer requiring each side of his body to play almost at odds with the other; whether it does for the listener may depend on if the piece is being witnessed or merely heard.
What will unite both composer and listener, Tignor hopes, is the space the pieces offer for personal reflection. With hymnal solemnity, the record invokes the sense of a sermon being delivered to an attentive congregation. But there is no didacticism here. Tignor seeks to impart merely a chance to ‘reclaim ourselves from the noise of public living’. The simplicity of these pieces is not only necessary for their one-man performance; it is deliberate to afford this opportunity to disconnect.
And so, the record’s intrinsic conflict presents itself: Watching the album means being ensnared by the detail and ingenuity of the performance, filling the space offered for our personal reflection. By better engaging us with the music, the visual aspect dilutes the efficacy of Tignor’s secular sermon. Yet, the videos elevate the slow and tonally limited compositions to a plane from which many may derive greater pleasure.
‘Real novelty isn’t an indication of quality but it does require a bit of bravery perhaps. We need to take chances.’ Christopher Tignor
This is a album that certainly takes chances, eschewing the increasingly pervasive technology that facilitates complex composition and performance. In progressing his performance techniques, Tignor ironically seems to reveal a yearning for a bygone era when music was seen rather than merely heard, when concentration on it was absolute rather than diluted by algorithmic playlists or myriad screens. Daring and laudable, Along A Vanishing Plane preaches to this congregant the value of never resting on musical laurels. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)