Hamilton's Relentless Pursuit

Andrew Hamilton

Hamilton's Relentless Pursuit

Andrew Hamilton's 'music for people who like art' was the nearest thing to a smash hit in contemporary music, writes Adrian Smith. A new recording on the NMC label includes works composed either side of it too.

Composed in 2009–10, Andrew Hamilton’s music for people who like art for large ensemble was the nearest thing to a smash hit that one is likely to encounter in contemporary music circles. It has since received numerous performances at major festivals and marked Hamilton out as one of the most exciting younger Irish composers. On this NMC release – music for people – it is joined by two other works composed four years either side of that illustrious piece – To The People (2014) for voice and solo percussion and music for roger casement (2006) for large ensemble.

Hamilton’s music resembles certain aspects of pop art in the way that familiar ‘objects’ – triadic chords, arpeggios, simple diatonic melodies – are given a renewed sheen through repetition and a preference for a bright, almost garish manner of ensemble writing. The formal axiom of Jasper Johns – ‘Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it [repeat]’, which Hamilton is fond of quoting – is an accurate description of his compositional approach. Although the music is heavily based on repetition, the material is never repeated exactly the same way for too long. Micro-variations and the addition of other, often disruptive ‘objects’ are relentlessly pursued, demonstrating that despite the music’s sometimes trivial-sounding surface, Hamilton is a seriously rigorous composer.

25 lines of words on Art
The twenty-minute juggernaut that is music for people who like art showcases these traits very clearly. The piece is a setting of American painter Ad Reinhardt’s famously ascetic text entitled ‘25 lines of words on Art’ which advocated an uncompromising pursuit of abstraction. Hamilton’s piece begins with several tightly interlocked statements of the most basic of materials – a root position C minor chord moving to a second inversion F minor chord – separated by silences. It quickly gathers pace into a continuous texture punctuated by unpredictable intrusions: the strike of an oil can, yelps from the vocalist and halted stutterings on the word ‘Art’ that’ll surely have some listeners wondering if there is something up with their CD player. These interruptions become more pervasive as the piece proceeds towards its irreverent climax with retching from the vocalist comically superimposed with what sounds like the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

After eighteen minutes of relentless intensity, the piece ends with a mushy maudlin coda that sets the last six lines of Reinhardt’s text, imbuing it with a kind of tongue-in-cheek pathos. The initial impression is of joyous subversion but the hard-edged discipline of the music shows plenty of affinities with Reinhardt’s ascetic strictures. Vocalist Michelle O’Rourke and the Crash Ensemble conducted by Alan Pierson perform the piece with a level of accuracy and concentration that is a step above other performances currently floating around on the internet.

To The People
In nineteen movements ranging in length from twenty-one seconds to six minutes, the second piece on the disc, To The People sets lines extracted from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s book America, an account of his travels in the United States during the Reagan years. Despite the spaciousness and the pared-back instrumentation, the music still gives the sense of being tightly controlled rhythmically, an impression enhanced by the precision exercised by soprano Juliet Fraser and percussionist Maxime Echardour on this recording. The movements range from those with hyperactive vocal lines to ones with a more tender, lyrical character such as movement 14. The return of material in several of the movements helps provide a level of coherence which is much needed because if there is a weak point in the piece it’s surely the choice of texts. The suave poststructuralist vagueness of lines like ‘power has become impotent’ or ‘speed creates pure objects’ sounds slightly pretentious and woolly when unmoored from their already hazy contexts in Baudrillard’s book. 

Stravinskian dryness
The earliest composed piece on the release, music for roger casement is also the most earnest in tone. It begins with a chord on the harmonium – another C minor in root position as it happens – followed by a different figuration of the same chord in the strings, horn and bassoon. This alternation generates a rocking motion and provides the main material for the piece. Along the way these chords are stretched, compressed, tripped up and have other objects inserted between them. The result is that the texture becomes more fragmented, complex and brutal the longer it goes on. The style of ensemble writing recalls the Stravinskian dryness of Hamilton’s teacher Louis Andriessen although the rapid-fire changes in instrumental groupings are very much his own signature trait. It is given a wonderfully energetic performance by the Amsterdam-based Ives Ensemble who commissioned the piece back in 2006.

While the three pieces on this release demonstrate a certain range to Hamilton’s style, one senses that the repetition/variation strategy has its limitations and it will be interesting to see how his music develops over the coming years. That said, it’s hard not to like the blend of formal rigour and quirkiness that runs through his music and the accompanying liner notes supplied by Liam Cagney provide some helpful context and analytical insights into the featured pieces.

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Published on 2 May 2018

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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