Live Reviews: Composers' Choice – Ian Wilson

NCH, 17 April 2003Psappha (Instrumental Ensemble)Tim Williams, DirectorWilson – Eat, Sleep, Empire (unterwelt, part 1)Morton Feldman – Why Patterns?Wilson – Involute (unterwelt, part 2)George Crumb – Eleven echoes of autumnIan Wilson...

NCH, 17 April 2003
Psappha (Instrumental Ensemble)
Tim Williams, Director

Wilson – Eat, Sleep, Empire (unterwelt, part 1)
Morton Feldman – Why Patterns?
Wilson – Involute (unterwelt, part 2)
George Crumb – Eleven echoes of autumn
Ian Wilson – Timelessly this

Ian Wilson presented a tight programme for his Composers’ Choice concert with two large-scale works acting as foils for his own.

Eat, Sleep, Empire is the first in a planned series of chamber pieces called Unterwelt that will ‘combine abstract musical thought with a tangential interest in Orphean mythology’. The piece is fast throughout – though not as fast as it could have been – and opens with an ostinato at the top of the piano that the other instruments take turns to comment upon as it builds to a brief climax. This seems to be the template for development as various pairings of instruments weave in and out of the foreground. Wilson talked before the concert of the whole piece being one long variation. He creates from this a kaleidoscopic sound where melody and accompaniment blur as lines tumble around each other and the motion from group to solo textures is always a seamless flow.

Involute was the NCH commission and sat perfectly with its slightly longer Unterwelt sibling. The soundworld is similar, but Involute exchanges short bursts of drama for the constant speed of Eat, Sleep, Empire as the mode of discourse. The ambiguities in the earlier piece with regard to foreground and background are here made more of a structural device as melodies become accompaniment and ostinati appear for a few seconds then disappear again. This flow was only broken by the strange but haunting piano cadenza that appeared near the middle and again at the end to close the piece. These two pieces in particular showed the strength of Psappha as an ensemble, both use a lot of fleeting instrumental doublings that gained greatly from the crisp and brilliant playing.

Feldman’s Why patterns? was not so much crisp as glacial in its almost half hour span, more so in affect than length as much of his music is many times longer. Piano, glockenspiel and flute each play for almost the entire piece as though in isolation and only come together with a common pulse for the last couple of minutes. The effect of this is startling and serves not only as a device to close the piece but also to cast in greater relief the individuality of the lines up to that point with their subtle patterning and repetitions. Relief was also cast on the two Wilson pieces that framed Why patterns?, their drama and motion complimenting the static beauty of the Feldman.

Eleven echoes of autumn was no less colourful than the rest of the programme, but relied more on non-classical playing techniques than orchestration. Crumb’s contribution to the gamut of instrumental sound sometimes overshadows the fact that his music is composed with such delicate imagination and precision. The eleven sections are played without a break and each focuses on a different timbre with the music being generally sparse. The sense of structure only coalesced after halfway through the piece when correlations – felt more than heard – began to arise and it took shape retrospectively, the language becoming more coherent as the listener proceeds.

The ten-year gap between Timelessly this and Wilson’s newer music was difficult to avoid thinking about and it suffered slightly in comparison to the later works by betraying a certain stylistic choppiness. For example, at one point the strings embarked on a distinctly early-music sounding episode that, while fine on its own, sounded strange in the context of the language around it, a language maintained through the episode by the piano. This implies the style shift is deliberate, but it only seems to make sense in extra-musical context of the historic stone circle that, according to the composer, influenced its writing: rather than timelessness, this piece evokes too many different times. Elements of this piece – such as the occasional harmonic incongruity and the compressed recapitulation of the episodes – meant that it lacked some of the fluency of the newer music, but it is an attractive piece that blends gentle lyricism with resonant and metallic washes of sound.

Overall, this was a concert rich in colour and ideas that presented quality over quantity, special thanks to the outstanding players of Psappha. We can hopefully look forward to more additions to the Unterwelt series; these two pieces already point towards a set with a strong group identity, but also a group of individuals.

Published on 1 May 2003

Scott McLaughlin is an Irish composer.

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