A Cello's Song at the Centre

Ed Bennett, Kate Ellis and Crash Ensemble following the Irish premiere of ‘Song of the Books’

A Cello's Song at the Centre

Kilkenny Arts Festival presented the Irish premiere of Ed Bennett's 'Song of the Books' last week, performed by Kate Ellis and Crash Ensemble. Toner Quinn reviews.

Composer Ed Bennett’s new work Song of the Books, which was given its Irish premiere at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in Rothe House (16 August), has its origins in a request from the cellist Kate Ellis for a solo piece. That didn’t happen, but she is at the centre of this twenty-minute work for cello, ensemble and electronics, performed with Crash Ensemble.

Bennett’s most recent recording, Togetherness, contains a startling range of music. He is as comfortable producing the ghostly book-ends of the title track as he is the edgy rock-minimalism of Suspect Device, complete with zany piccolo skimming along the top.

Song of the Books is in three movements and central to the opening is a sequence of intense solo notes from Ellis high on the cello register, with fast vibrato, often ending with a glissando up. Everything works around that. Her trajectory contrasts with Crash who periodically muscle in with heavy chords in a cross rhythm – the effect of three beats against four.  It’s a device that becomes a little too familiar too quickly however.

The second slower part opens with clustered chords on piano and Ellis responding, initially with more gentle lines, then the intense vibrato and glissandi appear again. Electric guitar, piano and electronics push the music in different directions, but Ellis follows her solo path. It is in these slow, unpredictable build-ups that Bennett is notably skilled. The movement ends with bird song, perhaps somehow referring to the inspiration for the piece, the traditional Irish song ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ (‘Song of the Books), about a boat incident in Kerry in the 1800s.

The opening of the third movement would remind the listener of passages from Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint or Music for 18 Musicians. This was disappointing because the original thrust of the piece up until then – the tension between Ellis solo at the centre and the unpredictable ensemble around her – was working. Ellis returned to her vigorous solo notes, but for a period the accompaniment slipped into a familiar minimalist texture and it muted the earlier intensity. Only when Alex Petcu introduced some strident percussion did it build again, finally ending with Ellis’ plaintive solo notes.

Song of the Books seemed to combine elements of all of the Togetherness album, from the opening violin passages of Heavy Western to the edge of Suspect Device. Bennett’s voice has many sides, and there’s a tightly packed centre to his music that draws you in. In this work it was particularly fascinating to hear Ellis perform such an intense solo role. The queue outside the Crash gig tailed a good way down Parliament Street. Ireland is fortunate to have such a skilled group of musicians – and a festival – that can generate this type of interest in new music.

Published on 21 August 2019

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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