SOPHIE HUTCHINGS: A WORLD OUTSIDE
Close your eyes, and take a trip. Listen and you'll see it. An ancient place of desert plains, mountain ranges and rocky gorges; of blazing sun, star-cloaked nights and shadows that loom and leave. A timeless terrain where clouds dance in water and red dirt roads stretch beyond the horizon.
This is soundscape as landscape. As a vast interior.
A World Outside.
The ninth studio album from lauded pianist and composer Sophie Hutchings is a work of spacious, hypnotic beauty, a musical travelogue inspired by a road trip through Australia's mighty Northern Territory, beginning in tropical Darwin and going deep into the arid Red Heart.
Rich with emotion and feeling, texture and contrast, as propulsive and powerful as it is elegant and intimate, A World Outside is an impressionistic take on a wide brown land. Piano notes flow, pause and surge, variously blending with strings, synths, percussion and field recordings, and features from First Nations artists, revered Yolgnu songman Rrawun Maymuru and rising Larrakia diva, Lena Kellie.
This is music that unveils itself. Like a universe of secrets.
"I'm a person who needs time away in a natural environment in order to make music," says Hutchings. "The bigger and more challenging the space, the better."
Like the majority of Australians, Hutchings grew up - and spent holidays - on the coast. Sydney-based, she remains an avid surfer. Travelling is a passion: periods spent in India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East have woven golden threads into a sound hailed as 'calm in a maddening world' by Clash and 'stirring, vigorous, grandly melodic' by MOJO.Hutchings flexed this shining aesthetic to global acclaim on her 2020 Mercury KX debut Scattered on the Wind, a collection of hitherto unheard pieces - some based around verse by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi - and fresh material created with musicians on strings, woodwind and soprano vocals.
This time around, she began with a blank canvas. With a map and an open mind. Reflection had provided direction: "Over lockdown I realised that I really didn't know enough about the land on which I was living" she says. "I decided to get lost in its colossal landscape. I wanted to absorb what I was seeing"
Hutchings committed everything to memory: the constant heat haze. The contours etched by the sunrise. Palm trees jutting from the sides of cliffs, swimming holes strafed with rainbow sparkles, rocks whose patterns told of long-gone seas. The great silence, sometimes eerie, often serene, that crept into her bones.
"There were days when I literally didn't see any humans. But I saw dingoes. Cliff wallabies. Wild camels and wild horses. I heard echoes, and melodies in the wind. Some mornings I'd do a big hike up a rock face and stand there taking in these endless 360°views.”
A smile. "That land has a mystical other worldliness like nothing I've ever experienced before"
Back home in Sydney, Hutchings began magicking an album using the loose, natural style she developed as a child. A child who, having struggled to sight-read, would come to channel her distinctive musical gifts using instinct, imagination and a system of written-out chord charts, practicing in private on the family piano while her two older brothers were listening to and/or playing in alt-rock bands. Her jazz-musician father, a multi- instrumentalist, had raised her on a musical diet that generally favoured horn players: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Chet Baker. The young Sophie gravitated to instrumental piano, regardless.
Pieces by the likes of Frédéric Chopin and proto-minimalist Eric Satie are in her muscle memory, nestled alongside such late-teen discoveries as contemporary classical composers Arvo Pärt and Jóhann Jóhannsson American chamber music renegades Rachel's and iconic Australian improvising trio The Necks. And although Hutchings composed prolifically throughout her mid-to-late twenties she waited until she was 32 before releasing her debut album, 2010's Becalmed.
"Music wasn't something I'd ever thought of as a full time career," says Hutchings, who has toured the globe, composed for film soundtracks and appeared on countless Best Of lists. "I guess music found me."
She wrote and arranged all ten tracks on A World Outside, with the contribution of electronic classical composer Nick Wales who also co-produced and recorded the album - using new state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos immersive 360 degree audio - at Electric Avenue and Trackdown studios in Sydney, and at Masters Studio in Darwin.
Longtime collaborator, cellist Peter Hollo, lends a lush gravitas to opener 'Dreaming the Stars', whose introductory drones and found sounds (bird song, the crrk-crrk of cicadas) evoke the feel of a world coming languidly into being: "I was sometimes waking as early as five in the morning" says Hutchings. "This feeling of endlessness hovered in the air as I drove along these straight dirt roads, watching the sun come up."
'A Dead Sea's Ripples' was inspired by patterns on the sandstone path leading to the top of King's Canyon, a gorge halfway between Uluru and Alice Springs in Watarrka National Park; on piano and vocalese, Hutchings's exhaled breath at the end might be the wind, or a wavelet in a phantom lake. 'The Golden Eternity' brings in a wealth of instruments - piano, synths and Wurlitzer; percussion, drum machines the Arabic rebec-lute - to conjure a sense of distances travelled, of moving light and changing hues. Piano motifs repeat, propulsive, trance-like. The voices of Hutchings and Kellie vie and blend.
The howls of dingoes permeate the oh-so-powerful 'This Elusive Land', a track daubed with drones and driven by robust, circling piano. "I got up in the middle of the night and went outside the van to look at the full moon and there were dingoes everywhere, not coming near me but howling in unison," she says. "The moonlight was hitting the gorge far over in the distance. The aura was unreal, spooky. I felt so insignificant."
'Cloud Beneath the Sea', a co-write with Maymuru, tells of the Mitwaj or north-east Arnhem Land region, home to the Yolngu people. More specifically, of a place where the sky reaches under the sea. "Rrawun wrote the piece in his own dialect, singing up a songline, a musical road map for his land. We were all in tears in the studio [in Darwin] when he sang. It was a beautiful moment.”
"The traditional owners of Australia have an incredible affinity with the land. It is in their blood," she continues. "I wanted to bring the two worlds, his world and my world, together on an emotional level."
The glorious, forward-going 'Into the Wild' combines piano, synths, bass Rhodes and the vocals of Kellie and Maymuru ("Rrawun's harmony comes in at the end like a calling"). Percussionist Bree Van Reyk brought percussion instruments from the North African and south Asian diasporas which Nick Wales then recorded various takes of and layered up organically to heighten the feel of a risky but exhilarating red earth ride.
About 'Swimming Into the Light' Hutchings says "I was remembering being underwater in these tropics-meets-desert mineral springs, in this totally silent world, and opening my eyes to look up at the light. It felt womb-like, protected"
Featuring bells, strings and prepared piano, 'Eyes On the Sun' recalls a sunset experienced while approaching the sacred geological wonder that is Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles; 'Back of Beyond' honors the expansiveness - and deceptiveness - of a land where, when you think you've reached, you find yourself at the start of somewhere else.
Then, featuring Hutchings on exquisite solo piano, comes 'The Wind That Circles Us', a track invested with trademark honesty and authenticity, tying the album, the impressions, in an elemental bow.
"It speaks to this idea that while something has come to an end, its memories remain embedded within you," says Hutchings. "I wasn't expecting so much silence; I thought I would record way more soundscapes. But up on these high peaks often all I could hear was the wind and nothing else.”
"Remembering the wind wrapped around me was like a symbol of everything I'd experienced."
And here, on an album that carves a space for our thoughts, our emotions, to wander into, it's a symbol of everything the listener will experience as well.
An enigmatic interior.
A World Outside. ends