Prom 13: Pioneers of Sound

Delia Derbyshire
The Delian Mode
Knockturning [world premiere of new arrangement for orchestra]
Laurie Spiegel
Only Night Thoughts [world premiere]
Suzanne Ciani
Improvisation on Four Sequences
Daphne Oram
Still Point [edited Feshareki & Bulley; world premiere of new realisation]

Shiva Feshareki (turntables & electronics)
James Bulley (live mix & electronics)
CHAINES (live electronics)
Suzanne Ciani (Buchla 200e synthesiser)

London Contemporary Orchestra
Robert Ames

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 July, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

'Pioneers of Sound', the first Late Night Prom of the 2018 BBC Proms, at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Sarah Jeynes / BBCThe London Contemporary Orchestra has certainly established a secure basis in the capital’s fixtures over its first decade of existence, and this late-night Prom of music by five pioneering female composers – each of them working within the electro-acoustic domain – left little doubt as to its innovative programming or the thoroughness and conviction brought to its performances.

The singular and latterly unfortunate life of Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) should not detract from her achievement in a highly experimental – and, at least in the UK, under-funded – field. As derived from the score to an earlier radio work (the like of which was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s raison-d’être for much of its existence, and where Derbyshire created the original theme music for Doctor Who, with Ron Grainer), The Delian Mode (1964) is a study in slowly-evolving sound-waves and predominantly low frequencies such as represents electronic manipulation at its most austere and unvarnished.

'Pioneers of Sound', the first Late Night Prom of the 2018 BBC Proms, at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Sarah Jeynes / BBCIt also provided an evocative context for what followed, even if Knockturning (2018) by CHAINES (aka Cee Haines) proved less than engrossing. Arresting as were those opening organ blasts, the ensuing combination of undulating orchestral textures and vaguely Latin percussion left relatively little impression beyond that of an atmospheric soundtrack such as Santana might have conceived during his more radical days. Enjoyable while it lasted, the whole amounted to rather less than the sum of its parts.

That said, it was still of more substance than Only Night Thoughts (2018). A pity, as Laurie Spiegel has been a notable presence on the electronic music scene in the USA for over half a century and it would have been good had her Proms debut reflected this. What resulted was a brief study in canonic textures as Michael Torke might have essayed earlier in his career. The LCO rendered it with unfailing poise, but it was hard to avoid a feeling of this piece as lying at the interstices of the innocuous and the apologetic.

Thankfully the contribution by Suzanne Ciani had rather more substance. A pioneer in the usage of the Buchla 200 synthesizer, Ciani elaborated this new piece from material featured on her Buchla Concerts 1975 disc – resulting in a diverse improvisation that faltered only during the rather staid melodic contours towards its centre. For the rest, this was a fond though never slavish recollection of those timbres and textures as were a mainstay of the VCS3 synthesizer beloved of early-1970s’ prog-rock outfits.

'Pioneers of Sound', the first Late Night Prom of the 2018 BBC Proms, at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Sarah Jeynes / BBCThe culmination of this programme in all senses was the second performance, and the first of what may well be its definitive incarnation, of Daphne Oram’s Still Point (1949). As with Derbyshire a seminal presence at the BBCRW, Oram had earlier been drawn to the then-untried integration of orchestral and electronic sources. Little wonder that this ambitious nearly-forty-minute piece went unheard at the time, with a full realisation only made possible with the recovery of the final score late in 2016. As presented here, Still Point drew upon two spatially arrayed orchestras – one “dry” and the other “wet” in terms of acoustic enhancement – with a set of turntables adding further real-time sound transformation. Deftly understated, while (surprisingly?) redolent of the music often associated with the “Cheltenham Symphonists” from this period, the orchestral writing is resourceful and often haunting. Save for a mesmeric transition at the close of their first appearance, the turntables seemed more an intriguing gloss than an integral component – which is not to deny either the imagination or sensitivity of Shiva Feshareki’s contribution to a fascinating whole.

Whatever its failings, this remained an absorbing programme which the LCO and Robert Ames – a gifted violist, evidently shaping up to be an adept conductor – brought off with assurance.

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