New works by 13 young composers from Hoxton New Music Days
partners in psychopathology
Green Plastic, Pink Oil and Water
a beast of burden
Deep in Your Coral Caves
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: January 2002
CD No: NMC D076
Duration: 69 minutes
These thirteen compositions were commissioned for the Composers Ensemble variously for the 2000 Brighton Festival and Hoxton New Music Days with a remit to the young composers to write a five-minute work for two winds, piano, modest percussion and two or three strings. Such omnibus commissions, as featured on several other NMC releases, often generate results greater than the sum of the parts, even when the pieces are freestanding.
When so commissioned, composers tend to produce a distilled essence of their musical language, which gives the listener a ’pocket guide’ opportunity to experience in microcosm the range of compositional styles being explored at a given moment. Naturally, the commissioned composers determine the stylistic range. Had the embryonic equivalents of Nitin Sawnhey, Damon Albern or Joby Talbot been invited to contribute, the overall result would have been different. As it is, even within the chosen area of what is perceived as ’contemporary classical music’ in Britain, these works cover a wide range, each leaving a distinctive thumbprint of its composer – I am writing this review several days after listening and retain a reasonably vivid memory of each.
One instinctively latches onto music for its individuality rather than for what it represents in wider terms, but a survey such as the present one cannot fail to drop a plumb-line through the ’isms’ of the day. What is striking is how the overall trends break down into the same polarity that would have been observed 25 or even 50 years ago. To put it bluntly, despite everything else that happened in the music of the last century, the road still forks at the crossroads where the sign points in directions called Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
In a British context, the ’modernist’ axis routes through Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle to figures like James Dillon and Michael Finnissy, while the Stravinskian axis might be said to go by way of Tippett to composers such as Judith Weir and Robin Holloway (generalising wildly, of course!).
A young composer in the former camp will probably favour some kind of violent expressionism as his lingua franca – that ’his’ being statistically highly likely – and there will often be a philosophical sub-text (thus Sam Hayden in the CD booklet – “I wondered if there could be such a thing as a deviant music and what it might sound like.”). The composer in the latter camp might well start from a nugget of folk-like motif, either invented or appropriated, and refract this through a prism of not-quite-tonal harmonic colourings, tending to produce a euphoric quality often buoyed by motoric rhythms. As always with art, however, pieces work as real music when they can elude these crude archetypes and create their own metaphysics. There are a good number of examples of this on the present disc.
More or less all of these composers understood that a five-minute chamber piece needs a single readily audible ’idea’ behind it, which at the most might involve the juxtaposition of two discrete elements to create a dynamic. Thus, Mary Bellamy’s Constellations alternates fluttering traceries of flute-dominated sound with periods of silence. Similarly, in Patterning, Tansy Davies creates a discourse between taut, assertive figuration and pools of stasis. Sam Hayden’s ’partners in psychopathology’ creates a fruitful dialogue from a low, slow-moving texture and bright, high bursts of activity.
Other composers favour a single, continuous texture. In Caught, Jonathon Cole explores the inner workings of a single chord, rotated through a constantly evolving texture. Oscar Bettison’s Cadence takes the aforesaid folk-like motif and repeats it throughout, while gently adding other material of varying degrees of relatedness to it. Julia Simpson’s ’a beast of burden’ and Deborah Pritchard’s Chanctonbury Ring are encore-like miniatures, the former playful, the latter a largely unison moto perpetuo. Alastair Stout’s Deep in Your Coral Caves is an impressionistic study of marine phenomena, briefly achieving a Tippettian radiance before dissipating its energy. The invention is a little baggy, but in a way that is consistent with the seascape being described. Alison Kay’s Rat-race creates a distinctive soundworld out of gradually blossoming lines and scurrying patterns.
Richard Baker’s Los Rabanos marks the only real departure from the Pierrot Lunaire/Fires of London instrumentation, creating an airy trio – clarinet, violin and percussion – that issues into a traditional Mexican carol.
My two personal favourites come from opposite ends of the chosen spectrum. Buoy by Morgan Hayes (whose Viscid for 15 players had already caught my attention) is intensely dramatic, a work of gestural, almost tactile images which ends in a strangely beautiful microtonal limbo. Rachel Leach’s Green Plastic, Pink Oil and Water, as well as having the best title of the bunch (depending on your tolerance threshold for whimsy), is a highly entertaining study in bold primary intervals and bell-like white-note harmony. I was also very taken by Saturnine by Jonathon Powell, which seems to occupy its own unique territory. A luminous, pan-tonal harmony glows behind tendrils of dissonant material, as if an ancient runic inscription was being revealed from underneath centuries of overgrowth.
The playing of the Composers Ensemble under Peter Wiegold is uniformly committed and sympathetic; the performances are assisted by excellent recorded sound in the best NMC house-style – clear, bright and warm.
With not one dud piece, I share John Woolrich’s view, in his notes, that whoever may have been missed out from this generation of British composers, the ones featured are some of the most interesting. To continue the booklet cover’s theme – not a single arrest for loitering or composing without due care and attention.