If the whisky is good, does it really matter what sort of vessel you drink it from?
Jon Hassell, creator of ‘Fourth World’ music (a mix of electronics, trumpet, minimalism, jazz and ethnic sounds), has released a new album called Listening To Pictures: (Pentimento Volume One).
Any new work by him is something to be welcomed – his music has the ability to create strange, sometimes eerie, sometimes calming dream states, summoning up impossible places; it is a soundtrack to dreams.
Recently, as part of a beginners’ guide to his works, he talked about his approach to the new piece in an interview for the excellent music website The Quietus.
It started, rightly enough, with an explanation of that strange-looking Italian word, pentimento which, for those of us who are not art historians, is probably not a term we will have encountered in our daily lives.
It’s a term used in art, referring to any marks, brush strokes, or images of earlier workings which reappear in a picture and are then used as elements in the final composition.
‘I started seeing (or was that hearing?) the music we were working on in the studio in terms of that definition,’ says Hassell in the interview. ‘Seeing it in terms of a painting, with layers and touch-ups and start-overs, with new layers that get erased in places that let the underlying pattern come to the top and be seen (or heard).
‘Most of the world is listening to music in terms of forward flow – based on where the music is “going” and “what comes next”.
‘But there's another angle: vertical listening is about listening to “what's happening now” – letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of “shapes” you’re seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through time.’
Vertical listening: Jon Hassell’s music challenges us to hear it in the moment
The mention of shapes piqued my interest because, for me, shape is the first clue in trying to tease out a whisky’s secrets. Is it round like a ball, or angular? Does it narrow to a point at the back of the tongue, or start in that way, expanding at the finish? Does it ripple, or it is angular? Does it touch the top of the mouth or skim along like some kind of stealth bomber?
I then like to taste in tiny sips, taking some on to the tip of the tongue and seeing what flavours are there; then another, this time holding it in the middle of the tongue; then another for the back-palate and the finish; then a final, larger sip, flooding the mouth to get the full impression.
It’s the best way (for me at least) to see how flavours arise and then disappear, and to pick up characters which otherwise may have remained hidden – a way of seeing the complete picture. Then, like Hassell’s music, you begin to see the layers within the whisky as it reveals its heart.
Pentimento can sometimes only emerge after time as the paint begins to thin, revealing what lies beneath. This is exactly the same as what happens in a cask: the loss, the absorption, the integration and the angel’s share: the way in which time and air, spirit and oak move in strange accords, shifting in emphasis, flowing, covering, obscuring and revealing. Those angels work in mysterious ways.
Rancio is a good example of this process: the precursors for those enigmatic flavours of tropical fruits and wax, slowly forming and concentrating over time, waiting for the lighter aromas to dissolve into air, finally unveiling themselves. Layers accrue over time, but some also disappear.
They are there to be noticed when we sip the whisky, just as they are there in the cask as the spirit matures. Hassell’s way of listening is also our way of tasting – not just horizontally: ‘what’s next?’ – but vertically as well.
Where does that place us? Right in the moment once again, observing what is happening at each point; observing the moment each flavour appears, allowing them to intrigue and thrill, helping you peel back the layers and see what is there: the original intent of the distiller, the influence of the cask, the caress of air, the taste of time.
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