Experiments in Musical Language

Soloist David Power

Experiments in Musical Language

The 2018 edition of New Music Dublin featured two ambitious concertos by Unsuk Chin and Kevin Volans exploring the language of the traditional sheng from China and the Irish uilleann pipes. Brendan Finan reviews.

There’s a sense of implied apology that too often comes with defences of new music. This music, it goes, is experimental, and not all experiments succeed. It’s true, of course, but it’s always been true. Beethoven’s choral fantasy was an experiment in structure and instrumentation, but the resulting shambles would likely be all but forgotten today if it hadn’t also been such a clear precursor to his ninth symphony.

This was the tone struck by John Harris, Director of the New Music Dublin festival 2018, during the interval of the festival’s performance of two concertos on Saturday 22 September. Part of the festival’s ‘defrosted’ series of concerts, which had been cancelled during the cold snap in March, the works featured were Unsuk Chin’s 2009 Šu for sheng (a Chinese instrument resembling a large mouth organ) and orchestra, with Wu Wei as the soloist, and the world premiere of Kevin Volans’ concerto for uilleann pipes and orchestra, Gol na mBan san Ár, with piper David Power performing, both accompanied by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra led by David Brophy. Harris’ passion is evident, his dedication to new music unquestionable, but I think he was making this point to the wrong audience. Attendees to a new music festival are already invested. We know that the music is experimental. That’s why we like it.

Pouring from the stage
Šu was written for Wu, who has recorded it on Deutsche Grammophon, but performed live the work had a sense of space hard to replicate at home. The sound poured off the stage and wrapped around the audience – literally, by the end, as in the closing moments the conductor turned to bring in the string ensemble located on the balcony behind the audience.

The instrumental writing in this concerto is very impressive, especially given its status as Chin’s only current work for the sheng. She shows extraordinary understanding of the timbres of the instrument, so that every sound seems to grow and develop from it, the orchestra reinforcing and branching out from what it brings into being. Wu was a remarkable soloist, practically dancing on the stage, and producing a staggering array of sounds, sometimes pinched and thin like an accordion, others clear and bell-like, still others almost electronic. At one point, near the end of the concerto (and just before a long passage of staggering virtuosity), I briefly mistook it for a solo viola.

Listen to the full performance below, courtesy of RTÉ Lyric FM.

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David Brophy and Wu Wei (Photo: New Music Dublin)

Another musical language
Although Volans’ concerto, Gol na mBan san Ár, acknowledges traditional influences, not least that of the traditional air from which it takes its title, its first notes demonstrated that it would be a work in its own idiom, not one which crammed a traditional sound into an orchestral setting. A long, cutting tone with pulsating grace notes sang from the pipes, while the percussion beat out a jerky accompaniment. Much of the rest of the material of the concerto drew on that opening gesture, sometimes as a sustained note, and others repeated; sometimes just a single tone, others widening to two or three, like an inhale–exhale.

Volans spoke recently with the Journal of Music of the difficulties in writing the work. Even his programme note emphasised these challenges; the pipes’ traditional design, unmodified for ‘the needs of Western “classical” music’, and of the respect due to the instrument, which he calls a ‘national treasure’. The work felt unable to fully escape these challenges. Power and the NSO under Brophy performed the work expertly, and there were some very effective moments, but for much of the concerto the orchestra and soloist felt like uncomfortable bedfellows, working together but not in concord. Many of the more enjoyable moments were those where the orchestra took a back seat, giving a lambent harmonic background to a passionate solo passage. The closing moments, too, were captivating, melodic fragments spinning out, eventually leaving only the soft drone of the pipes, buzzing gently like a speaker turned up too loud.

More’s the pity, then, that the concerto as a whole didn’t work better. Power proved himself an adept and sensitive soloist, and Volans’ writing, at its best, showed an understanding of the less explored strengths of the instrument; its potential to speak another musical language than that for which it’s best known. John Harris’ talk before the performance was of experiments, successful or otherwise; of their validity in art as much as in science. And one of the first lessons that every scientist learns is that every experiment is important, because even failed experiments yield results.

Listen to the full performance below, courtesy of RTÉ Lyric FM.

Published on 26 September 2018

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer living in Meath. He writes a blog at www.brendanfinan.net.

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