Music for Music: Simeon Walker


Simeon Walker: Essential Space

By Dan Ursini, ©2020

British composer and pianist Simeon Walker is a leading UK figure in the Modern Classical movement. His new album, Winnow, is about a volatile subject: leaving behind a religion that was once at the core of his life. That usually calls forth rage, heartbreak, self-pity: heavy volume and drama. Winnow is a world apart. It’s not that highly charged emotions were absent from Walker’s decision to leave the church. Rather, he said he “felt the most authentic way to express and process them was to allow the gentle, spacious, restrained, melancholic nature of my music to weave these emotions into the pieces you hear now on Winnow.”

The album contains nine pieces written over a three-year period. The compositions convey a sense of private moments shared with the listener in a spirit of humility and respect. They were written for piano, strings, percussion, and a keyboard called the ondes Martenot – an overlooked, brilliant instrument invented in 1928.

The opening track, “Speak Part 1,” sets the direction and tone of Winnow. It is a brave song, containing just the essentials, performed with subtlety and conviction. The musical ideas are expressed in highly concise yet nuanced terms. The result is music showing a rarefied understanding of proportion. Nothing is overstated, and there is always just enough to reach the heart and soul. Besides, the compositions make inspired use of expressive silences. They create shared breathing room, both for music and listener.

Winnow is an album enacting an inner journey. It does not tell a story overtly, yet it does illuminate particular stages in this process. As it proceeds from song to song, the musical phrasing often evokes the phrasing of patterns of speech—hesitations and restatements and subtle shifts in emphasis. “Haze” is marked by tentative descending melodic lines. It evokes trying over and over to get back something that has vanished, something once central to heart and soul. 

Equally so, the music often evokes the larger contours of the breakdown/separation process. The brilliant “Unraveling” is a measured and elegant evocation of a total collapse. “Speak Pt. 2,” which closes the album, does not offer a sense of culmination as much as it does a sense of forward motion achieved in new terms. 

The fascinating ondes Martenot is used throughout. Sometimes described as a cross between an organ and a theremin, its elusive sound can even evoke the human voice. I asked Walker why he chose to use it instead of a synthesizer. He replied, “Whilst it is an electronic and amplified instrument, it feels like a ‘real’ instrument, and whilst the extensive options available to music-makers with plug-ins and sampled sounds are enormous and incredible, I was keen to use real instruments played by real people at the same time, to ensure that the musical spark that occurs when musicians play together was present on this record.”

The chemistry among the musicians is indeed excellent, especially the relationship between Walker’s piano and the contributions by Josh Semans on the ondes Martenot. This is all crucial, since in Walker’s music, melodies and counter-melodies are shared with great fluidity across the keyboard and string instruments. “Seasons” captures the tight interplay between piano and strings. Walker said that “’Winnow’ also features jazz-infused and part-improvised percussion/drums performed by Steve Hanley… His musicality and responsive playing adds a completely different dimension … at times providing urgency, at others rhythmical complexity, as well as adding textural and timbral splashes of colour.”

The playability of the compositions surely benefitted from Walker’s decision to use some of them in concert. He said, “’Captive’ is a piece which I road-tested whilst touring around Europe in early 2019. In each city, I asked another musician on the bill to perform with me. It was different each time, featuring cello, accordion, synths, violin, secondary pianos, third hand piano played on the same instrument, and musical saw.”

The video for “Captive” is beautiful and mesmerizing, highlighted by a silent movement performance by Rowan Thorsby.

Throughout, Winnow expresses in refined terms the deep honesty of an individual gradually  realizing he needs to make a complete, fundamental break. A strong and sustained sense of integrity graces the entire album.

Simeon Walker Winnow videos on YouTube:

Winnow (making-of documentary)

“Speak Pt. 1”

“Captive”

“Seasons”

Photo Credit: Will Killen

Winnow Cover Art: Gregory Euclide

For more information, please also check out the links below:

Simeon Walker 

Winnow album

Ondes Martenot

Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at  Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: danursini@aol.com