Five Abstracts (Nos. 2, 4 & 5)
Without Fear of Vertigo
Small Black Stone
The Colour of Scars
Rolf Hind (piano) *
Recorded live on 21 & 22 April 2001 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: July 2002
CD No: NMC D078
Duration: 78 minutes
Following hard on the heels of NMC’s survey of the up-and-coming composing talents that comprise “The Hoxton Thirteen” is this indefatigable record company’s latest offering, a release presenting another cross-section of the newest generation of British composers recorded at last year’s “State of the Nation” weekend.
This annual event promoted by the London Sinfonietta is a valuable platform for emerging composers and audiences alike and is invariably a lively affair. My one complaint would be that each year the event’s title strikes me as more and more presumptuous, implying an all-embracing taking of new music’s pulse when in fact the featured composers tend to come from one specific faction, albeit a broad one, namely the Sinfonietta’s house-composers of the future (and related composers in the electronic field). New music from other areas is merely paid lip-service to and is nowhere to be heard on the present disc.
Accepting that caveat, however, there is much to be enjoyed here and the by-and-large longer playing times of the featured works gives a better picture of their composers than was possible to gain from “Hoxton”. The causes of all the works here are hugely assisted by the persuasive advocacy of the Sinfonietta under the direction (when required) of Pierre-André Valade whose increasingly high profile in British musical life is most welcome.
If it is in any way possible to gauge the state of the nation – or at least a part of it – from this collection, it might be said to partake of a kind of confrontational, in-your-face manner of writing which is nevertheless unwilling to abandon the traditional virtue of compositional craftsmanship – music that takes a walk on the wild side but packs a compass and a thermos flask in its knapsack.
A good case in point of this tendency is Joe Cutler’s Without Fear of Vertigo.Asked in the CD booklet to supply a one-word description of his music, the composer proposes “nasty”. There is indeed an undercurrent of violence flowing through the work but it has an almost playful, cartoon-like quality which pulls the punch. Believe me, I have heard truly nasty music and it doesn’t sound like this. (The curious – and brave – reader is referred to the work of Hans-Joachim Hespos for starters.)
More genuinely unsettling is Fraser Trainer’s The Colour of Scars for soprano saxophone and ensemble, which – on the evidence of the extract presented here – succeeds in creating a nightmarish soundworld appropriate to its lurid subject-matter, particularly as vividly realised by Simon Haram and the Sinfonietta.
Compared to the high drama of Cutler and Trainer, other composers favour the oblique and half-stated. David Horne’s Broken Instruments is a study in elusive, shape-shifting textures. The topsy-turvy dysfunctional soundworld promised in the composer’s note (and delivered by the music) suggests the provocative work of continental figures such as Helmut Lachenmann, but fine British craftsmanship brings us back from the brink and saves the day. An original statement nevertheless. Rolf Hind’s Solgata starts as a kind of labyrinthine puzzle-canon and finishes as a puzzle pure and simple. I found it hard to evaluate. I must also reserve judgement on Richard Ayres’s No.24 Noncerto and not just because the built-in visual component is absent here. The deliberate cultivation of clichés, the deadpan humour and surreal theatrical elements bring to mind Kagel, but the curious admixture of Ligeti, Britten-like chains-of-thirds and much else remains stubbornly inert for this listener.
Luke Bedford, still a student in 2001, supplies one of the most interesting and promising works.Each Abstract is based on a different compositional gambit followed through with unswerving logic. The gradually proliferating single line of No.2 could perhaps have been given a longer timespan in which to evolve. The frightening accumulation of material towards the climax of No.4 challenges even the Sinfonietta’s players. No.5 comprises a monody which blossoms into a handsomely–shaped chorale and back again. With their uncompromising schemata and dry but bracing invention, these pieces put me in mind of the very early work of Peter Maxwell Davies – an auspicious similarity!
Other composers declare influences in their booklet notes that are readily audible.Larry Goves cites Feldman and Xenakis and sure enough walking underground articulates a kind of aggressive stasis which seems to be a fusion of both composers’ characteristics (the composer’s note is ambiguous as to whether this is the whole piece or an extract). Tansy Davies, on the other hand, cites Bach and Xenakis and Small Black Stone for viola and piano seems to distil an essence of each composer in its visceral counterpoint. A striking piece performed with superb commitment by Paul Silverthorne and John Constable.
The collection is topped and tailed by two purely electronic works. Jo Thomas’s Wolfie throws up some interesting ideas that cry out to be developed at greater length than the minute-and-a-half the composer allots them. Steamin’ by Peter Batchelor, which processes the sound of steam locomotion, is a “Night Mail” for the 21st-century – it quite literally generates a good head of steam.