Simon Mawhinney

Batu. Barcode III. HunshigoAltarus (AIR-CD-9027)Darragh Morgan (violin), Mary Dullea (piano)Simon Mawhinney first encountered Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s intimidating, four-hour Opus clavicembalisticum while still a young, would-be musician. Its abiding...

Batu. Barcode III. Hunshigo
Altarus (AIR-CD-9027)
Darragh Morgan (violin), Mary Dullea (piano)

Simon Mawhinney first encountered Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s intimidating, four-hour Opus clavicembalisticum while still a young, would-be musician. Its abiding influence and imprint is clearly to be found and felt on this compellingly intense new recording of music from the now fully-grown, and on the evidence here, fully-formed, composer. Clearly, you don’t walk away from Sorabji unscathed when your first meeting with him is at so tender and impressionable an age.

The three featured works – two solos for piano and violin and a duet for violin and piano – are all acoustic, but they owe much to Mawhinney’s pre-occupation with the technical minutiae of sound design and sound analysis as hidden structures and signifiers. They also share two other characteristic Mawhinney traits: seriousness of intent and intensity of expression.

Composed in 2005 for solo piano, Batu was inspired by the Hindu shrine set into a cave on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, and was written for Mary Dullea, who plays it here. ‘Compositions,’ Mawhinney says, ‘are like postcards’, and Batu is an impressionistic, dream-like report from a foreign field that bubbles and boils with a dark delirium, conjured from within an extended, endlessly transforming nineteen-pitch ‘chant’ that is eventually swept away by a tsunami of short-lived but catastrophic dissonance, an event that also hints at programmatic possibilities.

Dullea copes magnificently with the music’s rapid, fevered figurations, the relentless upward thrust of the central chant and its astonishing thematic complexity. No less impressive is her husband, violinist Darragh Morgan, with the ‘extravagant virtuosity’ of Barcode III.

Built around half-stop fingering – a technique derived from the Middle East, where strings are played without a finger-board against which notes are usually ‘stopped’ – and sul ponticello (literally ‘on the bridge’) bowing, Barcode III is as concentrated and considered as a public post mortem; a discrete balancing of the public and the personal. At its crucible-like centre is an altogether striking sonic image: stratospherically high harmonics tethered to earth by slow glissandi, windblown and dispersed by ‘very fast microtonal pizzicati and aggressive, snapping Bartókian pizzicati’.

Hunshigo finds Dullea and Morgan playing together in a substantial and demanding dialogue over forty-five minutes. Named after a lake in Mawhinney’s native County Down as imagined in the time-stopping moments before dawn, it is defined by a seeming lack of definition – its surface not yet fully settled and diffused with haunting, swirling vapours, beneath a constant shifting and shaping of countless unformed threads – that gives expression to what the composer describes as ‘a sense of “drift”’.

Again, an interest in sub-sonics informs structural conceits, the music’s dark reverie owing much to recalled (but never exactly repeated) ideas and phrases, a process that imbues the whole with an incorporeal sense of a world caught between reality and imagination. The result is a haunting, brooding portrait illuminated by moments of mystery, glinting beauty and shards of warmth. Listened to on headphones, it acquires a spectral intensity all its own.

Published on 1 June 2009

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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