Diverse Responses to the Earth and Sea

Jane O'Leary (Photo: W.J. Barry Photography)

Diverse Responses to the Earth and Sea

Navona Records have recently released a live album of works for orchestra and large ensemble by Peter Dickson Lopez, Corrina Bonshek and Jane O'Leary. Mark Fitzgerald reviews.

The new release Relive from Navona is a somewhat curious mix of pieces for different forces by three different composers born in different decades with different backgrounds. The only thing the pieces seem to have in common is that the performances on the release are all live. Even stranger, the longest of the three pieces, Peter Dickson Lopez’s The Ship of Death, is not given complete. The online notes state that while the work was conceived as a multi-sectional single movement composition, the performance (previously released in full on the 1750 Arch Records label) has been reduced from a total length of 42 minutes to 21 minutes, as ‘it was necessary to select excerpts from the full work to fit into the allotted time for this release.’ Given that the total duration of the digital-only release is about 40 minutes, it is hard to understand why the full piece could not be accommodated. On the other hand, as the company clearly stuck to a bureaucratic rule that nothing was to be longer than around 20 minutes and there is no particular logic to the programme, it would have been easy to add in a further piece or two by some other composers, or even a second piece by one of the three chosen composers.

Dickinson’s The Ship of Death was composed in 1976–7 and sets the lengthy eponymous poem by D.H. Lawrence. Navona’s online notes state that the work is structured with ‘specific givens but not fixing their macrocosmic relationships in such a way as to provide endless variation while allowing for sufficient overall formal control to successfully effect a “coming into port” at the close’. Quite what this means is a little hard to figure out without a score or further detail (Navona refers listeners to the composer’s website for further information, but I was unable to find any there). The full work sets all of Lawrence’s text sequentially, while the cut performance on Navona omits section four, most of section five, sections eight and nine and most of the final section of the poem. At the heart of the performance is the highly committed performance of singer Thomas Buckner who has to contend with a veritable maelstrom of sound from the percussion-heavy ensemble. Listening several times to the piece I felt that the relentlessly angular ‘new-music’ vocal line (complete with forays into falsetto, speech-song and with emphasis on the sounds of less important syllables) was quite wearing on the ear. Perhaps for this reason the somewhat more lyrical passages, such as the sixth section in which the voice is electronically modified and layered with itself and other voices, stood out as the most striking moments. The concluding instrumental section, rather than balancing the opening minutes of the piece seemed somewhat unconnected to the preceding passages while also perhaps hinting at a more lyrical composer trying to get out. Elsewhere lyrical lines tended to splinter and fragment rapidly. I also found it hard to get any sense of large-scale landmarks in the piece. However, having listened to the complete work, which is available on the composer’s soundcloud performance, I found myself wondering if some of these issues are in fact caused by the cuts. There is a greater variety of mood in the complete piece. The slow passages (such as the cut portion of the final section) make the ending seem more integrated and passages of the fourth and ninth sections reinforce my initial impression of the concluding passage’s hidden romanticism. In many ways, the piece seems to be rooted strongly in the 1970s when it was composed, dramatizing the conflict between contending with the legacy of the post-war avant-garde on the one hand and the emergence of neo-romanticism on the other.

Born the year The Ship of Death was completed, Corrina Bonshek’s 9 minute Dreams of the Earth I is derived from an earlier and much larger work entitled Song to the Earth. Commissioned for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Arts and Culture Festival, this installation work for strings, percussion and recorded bird song was designed to be performed outdoors and was premiered with the musicians (wearing lights) in eight groups spread around a circle 25 metres in diameter. The audience were able to wander around these groups to experience the music from different angles. Dreams of the Earth was conceived as a concert reduction for strings of the original work, designed for performance in the more traditional set-up of a concert hall. Inspired by a flock of birds circling in the sky and the sound of cicadas, it is intended to concentrate the listener both on the sounds of nature and the imminent ecological disaster caused by climate change. The piece is a meditative and euphonious work, which begins with detached chords. This texture is slowly altered with added trills and gradually little fragments of melody emerge. These lines become more expansive as the work progresses. Just as the mellow atmosphere seems like it is about to be disturbed by some chromatic movement in the lower strings against a repeated note in the higher strings, the work comes to a surprising close with a repeated pizzicato figure. The individual lines are clearly delineated in the performance and the work should appeal to those who enjoy immersive diatonic or modal compositions with undisturbed surfaces.

Towards a dramatic finish
The release begins with a performance of From Sea-Grey Shores (1999) by Jane O’Leary. O’Leary was one of the most notable absences from the RTÉ Lyric label’s male-heavy Irish Composer CD series. While the bulk of her work has been written for chamber ensemble there are more than enough pieces to make a portrait CD of her work, ranging from a number of works for chamber orchestra composed in the 1980s to Triptych premiered just days before Ireland’s covid lockdown began. From Sea-Grey Shores is a ten-minute response to the landscape of the west of Ireland and the movement of the sea. In this piece, O’Leary builds on her experience of working with chamber groups to create a complex orchestral palette in which individual string players are drawn out from the main body to create intricate filigree textures. Beneath this glistening surface is a slower moving harmonic undertow, which coalesces on single notes that act as pedal points until they are destabilised by the swirl of surrounding pitches. In less experienced hands this could lead to something fragmentary and episodic but O’Leary’s piece moves with an unerring sense of inevitability towards its dramatic finish. The closing gesture may bring us full circle back to the opening of the work but the entire context has changed, just as the grand vista of the sea may seem unchanged while in reality it is constantly changing. The performance under Gavin Maloney could have made use of a wider dynamic range to match the markings in the score and as can happen in the cut and thrust of live performance the balance is not always ideal, but overall this is a very welcome addition to the repertoire of Irish composition on CD.

It is great to see labels like Navona releasing works by contemporary composers but in this case one feels the composers have been disadvantaged by the rather haphazard approach to programming. For Irish composers such ventures are particularly important at the present time. Hopefully, when the NSO finally completes its transition to being an independent body its management will prioritise a return to the recording of Irish compositions either on its own label or on some established label. A full disc of O’Leary’s work would be a good place to start.

Relive: Live works for orchestra and large ensemble is available from Navona Records. Visit https://www.navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6334/

Published on 19 March 2021

Mark Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer at TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama.

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