Willie Reviews Meara O’Reilly’s “Hockets for Two Voices”

Willie Reviews Meara O’Reilly’s “Hockets for Two Voices”


Composer Meara O’Reilly’s Hockets for Two Voices bets it all on a single compositional technique, and races frenetically through seven pieces in just about ten minutes’ time. RPM’s review:

Hocket, at its most basic, is a technique that disperses a single melodic line between more than one voice. Though in the Western world we call it hocket after the French term hoquet and trace its heritage to 13th century sacred vocal music, the technique is found just about everywhere in world music, most notably in Indonesian gamelan (and in its derivation, the Akira soundtrack). It’s a malleable musical tool, running the spectrum of visibility from subtle timbre changes to virtuosic pieces that scream their hocket-ness. It should come as no surprise, then, that composer Meara O’Reilly’s Hockets for Two Voices seeks the latter. On this short EP, she uses two voices (both her own) to create tight interlocking compositions that astound and confuse. This is hocket adopted as a religion, the shape of hocket to come, and the natural end game for the technique. Voice one and voice two have no choice but to flame out spectacularly after their constant jockeying for the melody at breakneck speed.

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The only sound we hear is O’Reilly’s vocals, which took over a year to record. Unsurprisingly, her precision is remarkable. The style aims for a computer-like accuracy with the addition of human artifacts. When her voice cuts out after every note to allow room for the next, there is always a remnant of breath floating there, decaying. But like a Casio keyboard’s vocal sample, the sound is imperfect in the same way every time. O’Reilly plays a game where she imitates herself, and she approaches it like an instrumentalist—aim for the least variance. This mechanical process works beautifully.

Following any part of this record is a challenge, and the music encourages you to find new ways to wrap your head around it. Our brains are built to understand melody just as they are conversation, but we can still try to retrain ourselves to hear the pinging sounds in the left and right channels as one. The liner notes provide a visual diagram, complete with both voices and guide lines connecting each leap. This translation is both fascinating and cruel, because by focusing on each individual voice’s path, we stand to understand even less of the whole. And because each melody is so lively, spanning octaves with regularity, the jumps between any two notes can be enormous. Consider “IV.,” a track even jumpier than most. Each intrusion, whether left channel or right, seems wholly new. Establishing a narrative is discouraged because the comfortable home note evades capture. The piece is gleefully ahistorical and even antihistorical. Though it lasts just 90 seconds, it has already abandoned parts of itself by the end.

Meara O’Reilly, photo by Chantal Anderson

The short track lengths suggest single thoughts—complete and steady ideas long enough for just one roman numeral. But because so many of the tracks have discrete A and B sections, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The sliding introductory phrases of “III.” give way to a more linear composition than the setup indicates. The interaction of the two voices is not collaborative but instead conflicting. By forcing them together, O’Meara’s compositions take on an ephemerality that won’t hold together for any amount of time. In doing this, the notes drift off, establishing new ground with each movement across the page. It’s all inhale and no exhale, a breathless listening experience that unnerves in the way of all the best experimental new music.

That being said, there is sense to be found on the album. A few of the tracks use phrasing as stable as a Bach duet, like “V.,” which takes on a Classical-era character, delineating its measures with slight pauses. It even uses slight overlap of the two voices to create the occasional harmony. “VI.” explains itself by committing to simple mimicry. Wherever one voice goes, the other follows, and they chase each other in circles, lines, and triangles. Each quick repetition is a secondary confirmation of the music’s direction.

The album is also bound for sense because its overarching concept is one-minded. Where it refuses to circle back around in its individual compositions, it states its hocket thesis in timbral consistencies across all seven tracks. There will always be two voices restating one impenetrable truth.

Score: Thrill ride in a void.