Royal College of Music – From the Soundhouse: A Tribute to Tristram Cary

Continuum [for tape]
Narcissus [for flute & two tape recorders]
345: a study in limited resources [for tape]
Doctor Who: Incidental Music [for tape]
Strands [for two pianos and computer generated sounds]
Steam Music [for tape]
Trios [for VCS3 and two turntables]

Michael Oliva & Lawrence Casserley (electronics), Carla Rees (flute), John & Robert Cary (turntables), Antoine Francoise & Robin Green (pianos)

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 27 November, 2009
Venue: Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Listening to a concert of music you do not know, for approximately ninety minutes, without an interval, is a difficult enough feat of endurance and concentration. Listening to a ninety-minute show of electronic music, with and without live instrumentalists, is a nigh-on-impossible feat. The major problem is that there are so few musical points of reference. No matter how much the composer may claim classical forms are being used, without notes it is simply a maze of sound.

When I was a student and composition competitions were announced in “The Musical Times” I was always amused by the statement that entrants could offer electronic pieces but that they had to send a fully notated score “to show musical literacy”. And to think that these days you can do a music GCSE without being able to read music. What are we coming to? Tristram Cary proved his musical literacy with two great scores for film, the original (and best) version of “The Ladykillers” (1955) and the masterly Sci-Fi “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967). He managed to consolidate both sides of his musical character by creating electronic scores for TV’s “Doctor Who”, including the very first Dalek story (1963).

Tristram Cary was born in 1925, one of four sons born to novelist Joyce Cary and his wife Gertrude. It was during his time working as a radar engineer for the Royal Navy during World War Two that he developed his own conception of electronic and tape music. He is regarded as one of the pioneers of this form of composition. With Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell he founded Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd, which was responsible for the first commercially portable synthesizer, the EMS VCS3. This RCM show was a tribute to the man who set up the electronic-music studio at the Royal College, possibly the first such studio at a British music college, and it was a fascinating evening. There is nothing difficult about this music – it is easy to follow, colourful and very enjoyable.

Continuum is a major piece, totally electronic, no concrete sounds whatsoever. In his note Cary wrote: “there can be no closure, so it stops rather than ends.” I question this for it is a very concentrated piece and seems to move towards a forthright conclusion. Perhaps the forty years of listening which has passed since the premiere of Continuum has made us hear the piece differently. Narcissus was the most satisfactory piece on the programme. Here the solo flute, and its recorded images interweave and create an hypnotic tapestry of sound. Carla Rees was the superb flautist, playing with disarming simplicity, which made it all the more delicious. The note told us that “performer and tape operators are free to continue and extend the music ad lib”. The short duration of this performance made one wonder if this were a simple version, and if so, this was a good idea for it certainly made one want more.

345: A Study in Limited Resources uses fundamental frequencies 3, 4 and 5 Hz and their multiples by 10. A fascinating piece, mixing rhythmic hammering with outright humour, amongst other things; a very successful piece. But most fascinating were the two excerpts from Cary’s incidental music for “Doctor Who”, from 1963, the first appearance of the Daleks, and 1972. These were fascinating miniatures, music for a children’s TV series which had to be scary. Perhaps in context they are scary but heard here they were most attractive.

Strands, for two pianos and computer generated sounds, was well played by Antoine Francoise and Robin Green, but this was too reminiscent of any electronic music, and lacked the focus of other Cary electric pieces. Likewise Trios, which was a game which was far too long for its content. Steam Music, on the other hand, which took the sounds of train whistles, was quite beautiful and made a glorious sound which was both pleasing and very satisfying.

Everyone involved was totally committed to the performance of this music. It would be good if the College could give us some of Cary’s concert works, such as String Quartet No.2 (1985) or the Strange Places (piano, 1992) or Messages (cello, 1993). This was a fine tribute to a British composer who, probably because of his move to Australia in 1973, has been forgotten here. He is too important a figure to be allowed to disappear from our ears.

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