Challenging Heights

Challenging Heights

Composer Ed Bennett's latest release with his ensemble Decibel has just the right number of swerves and asymmetries, writes John McLachlan.

The Birmingham-based group Decibel is a collective of performers and composers formed in 2003 by Ed Bennett. This new CD on Diatribe records is a very representative round-up of five pieces from Bennett composed between 2011 and 2016, all written for Decibel and all but one calling for amplification. Bennett has a strong voice of his own and this recording complements two existing CDs of his music (Dzama Stories on the Quartz label and My Broken Machines on NMC) which include Decibel but involve others.  

Bennett’s music can be (and has been) spoken of in connection with the sounds or aesthetics of Brian Irvine, Donnacha Dennehy, Louis Andriessen, and the groups Bang on a Can, Icebreaker and Crash Ensemble. That may help to place him, in a very rough way, as postminimal and postmodern. 

Hefty climaxes
From a specialist angle, all of the music on Togetherness could be classified as broadly tonal, in the way that it carefully unfolds and links its pitch materials, yet to the average listener it reaches heights of cacophony and dissonance that will be exciting and challenging. Some of these hefty climaxes seem slightly excessive or non-integral to this listener, for example in the work Togetherness, while others (track 1 to 3 – Suspect Device, Sometimes Everything Falls Apart and Heavy Western) are as well judged as the rest of the piece – which is to say just right. In the live situation these issues would probably melt away. With its postminimal qualities, this music is easy to follow, but – in the first three tracks – there are just the right number of swerves and asymmetries, and some beautifully unexpected crevasses in the texture, and we are never far from elegiac and tragic atmospheres and subsurface yearnings. 

A unified musical wall
The final tracks show another side of Bennett. Slow Motion Music is ambient and chilled, while Togetherness, the longest track by far at 27 minutes, immerses the listener in a very gradual and regular build – where some lovely blends of tone colour provide a lot of interest – to one single manic height. 

Each piece is for an ensemble size of eight to twelve players, and, with the exception of Heavy Western, there is little sense of opposition or dialogue between subgroups: normally the players are deployed as block-like elements to the furtherance of a strongly delineated unified musical wall, realising the composer’s architecture. That makes for a relatively easy first listen for most of the pieces, which keep your ears focused on single-minded but striking musical arguments. Indeed at first it is Heavy Western which seems not to fit in, but after more listenings this one calls you back for reflection the most. 

The running order here goes broadly downward in energy terms: each piece is somewhat less lapel-grabbing and in-your-face than the previous one. Or at least changes less often, heading towards a more immersive and meditative pacing. This ordering though makes it very rewarding to sit and listen to the whole CD from start to finish in one go.

Ed Bennett/Decibel: Togetherness is available on Diatribe at www.diatribe.ie.   

Published on 11 July 2018

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info

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