Jane O'Leary – The Passing Sound of Forever

Jane O’Leary

Jane O'Leary – The Passing Sound of Forever

'Sketching quickly, grasping the essence of the atmosphere', writes Jane O'Leary about one of her recent chamber works – Brendan Finan reviews a recently released collection.

In the 1980s, Jane O’Leary’s work began a transition from the abstract, serial music of her early career to something much more expressive and poetic. Although her recent music has retained some serialist vocabulary, it comes with a much greater emphasis on painterly textures and freedom of expression. It also has the sense of the extremely local: much of her work is chamber music written for a small group of collaborators and friends. Concorde and ConTempo Quartet, the two music groups she has nurtured in her adopted home of Galway, are key performers of her music, and both feature on The Passing Sound of Forever, her new collection of six chamber works.

The title work is performed by ConTempo, the Romanian quartet O’Leary established as Galway’s first Ensemble in Residence. Of the other five works on the album, members of Concorde feature on four, split into a variety of smaller groups; Elaine Clark, Madeleine Staunton and Paul Roe appear on two works each, performing violin, alto flute and clarinets respectively; Concorde’s accordionist Dermot Dunne joins Roe and Staunton for the opening work, A Way Through; guest musicians appear elsewhere: pianist David Bremner performs a duo with Roe, murmurs and echoes…; and …from hand to hand…, a duologue for harp and cello, is written for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s Andreja Malir and Martin Johnson.

A Way Through
 and the passing sound of forever…, which bookend the collection, both use material from other composers. The former repurposes the first four notes of The Rite of Spring, as well as its trick of using lower wind instruments (alto flute and bass clarinet in this case) in a high register to create a tense, unsettled timbre. These notes pierce the air, before falling off like a coyote howl. The work, composed ‘in the aftermath of a personal tragedy’, transitions over ten minutes from brittle chords and bleak harmony to an ending that is as clear as Copland.

Each work on the album carries an evocative title, and often, like A Way Through, the title is clearly apt and descriptive. The duos of A Winter Sketchbook begin with a beautiful evocation of cold: open strings on the violin with resonances crystallised and sustained on alto flute. …From hand to hand… sets itself at extremes of high and low, or loud and soft, or present and ethereal. Three of the six titles come from poetry: the latter work from Walt Whitman, and murmurs and echoes and the passing sound of forever… from Moya Cannon and Dermot Healy respectively. Even the seemingly incongruous No. 19, for solo violin, is named in reference to the Contemporary Music Centre, housed at 19 Fishamble Street in Dublin.

Tiny sounds
O’Leary knows her musicians well, and writes to their strengths. A considerable part of the album is spent exploring tiny sounds – col legno bowing in the passing sound of forever…, or the alto flute’s echoing of the violin’s resonances in A Winter Sketchbook, or the impossibly distant cello harmonics at the opening of …from hand to hand.

In this way, texture and colour and sensation provide the interest for most of the album, and narrative, clearest in the first work and the last, often seems a secondary concern. So there’s a palpable sense of alarm when the passing sound of forever… develops, seemingly from nowhere, a propulsive, energetic beat. Content until now to be appreciated like a painting, the music suddenly grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you away with it.

This work, for ConTempo, is built on a motif from Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ quartet; O’Leary dismantles and permutes and distorts and rebuilds the motif exhaustively. Its sense of momentum and narrative drive set it apart from the other works on the album, though in a way that works oddly to its advantage. Heard in isolation, the passage, though still exciting, doesn’t quite have the same effect. But coming so late in the album, this rare moment of extroversion is magnified.

Sketching quickly
In her programme note for A Winter Sketchbook, O’Leary writes that she imagined herself ‘sketching quickly, grasping the essence of the atmosphere’, and that seems an effective way to think about this album generally. Each work is relatively short – between seven and fourteen minutes, sometimes divided into separate movements – and there is a sense of the minimalist sketches by Picasso in their economy of material and directness of gesture.

But the clearest model may be Schumann’s chamber music. Although O’Leary’s compositions are sparer in texture and material, clearly the work of a composer trained in the twentieth century, they are works of strong introversion and intimacy, existing only for a brief moment in time.

The Passing Sound of Forever: The Chamber Works of Jane O’Leary is issued on the Navona Records label. For more, visit navonarecords.com.

Published on 10 July 2017

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit www.brendanfinan.net.

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