The Menacing & the Sublime

Composers' Choice 2005.

The invitation must appear straightforwardly enticing at first sight: choose some of your own work and set it alongside the work of composers you admire or who had a formative influence on you. Who would have trouble filling the hour or two in question? But, just as there is a difference between chatting with a friend and doing a formal interview, there is a difference between listing favoured works and presenting a coherent programme in a formal setting.

Within the obvious constraints – you are unlikely to be granted an orchestra, a brass band and a full-scale choir – the choice remains a wide one. You don’t want to be too solemn, too casual, too vain… A composer’s choice is not an easy one.

In the five choices presented in this year’s series, there was remarkable diversity – of style, of format, of self-presentation, of quality perhaps. Benjamin Dwyer was one of those who seized the opportunity offered to make a real statement. Instead of a little bit of everything, we were offered two courses: some songs and instrumental pieces by Dowland and the latest and fullest version of the composer’s long, almost obsessive engagement with the Crow poems of Ted Hughes. Having already brought a brooding energy and physicality to English verse, having taken the English nature poem by the neck and shaken it as a terrier would a rat, Hughes delivered a further shock with the collection Crow. Here he moved into a mythical post-apocalyptic world dominated by the savage cackling of the Crow figure. There is something purgative and extreme about these poems, even in the context of Hughes’ own work.

Rather than respond to individual poems or deal with Crow in a programmatic fashion, Dwyer seems to have brooded over the poetry and then constructed his own Crow universe in sound – building on elements drawn from Dowland’s ‘In Darkness Let Mee Dwell’. The players of Vox 21 interacted with taped sounds that ranged from the hushed to the harsh. At the heart of the eight-part work is the bleakly beautiful ‘Scene V: Crow Improvises’ (with Susan Doyle both playing the flute and vocalising) where a dim echo of the lyricism of Dowland conveys a sense of irremediable loss.

Those who had previously heard some of Scenes from Crow were offered a visual re-imagining of the work by artist David Farrell. Nuclear mushroom-clouds and the menacing sight of approaching helicopters spoke directly of violence and apocalypse. An ever-shifting and reshaping cloud of birds (starlings rather than crows?) seemed to abstract itself gradually until it was as much music as image. If, as in a wittily edited scene of opening and closing hands, sound and vision could work together, each medium could also go its own way. (To this observer, on reflection, an explicitly sexual scene evoked personal experience in a way that risked drawing attention from the music and was not in keeping with either the poet’s or the composer’s vision.)

Some of the best-known composers of our day draw on the religious and musical language of the medieval and renaissance periods. Much of Eibhlís Farrell’s choice of her own music – pieces such as O Star Illumined by the Sun, Caritas Abundat, O Rubor Sanguinis or the NCH-commissioned Pulchra Es, for the unusual combination of mezzo-soprano, bass clarinet and harp – would sit comfortably enough alongside theirs. Such music induces atonal tooth-grinding in some quarters; others see it as offering an escape from arid intellectualism and a path back towards the sublime. But Farrell is not doctrinaire in any sense; her musical language varies from piece to piece.

A composer rarely heard in Ireland, Charles Wuorinen appeared here only as a re-interpreter for piano of a Josquin motet. Raymond Warren’s Sonata for Violin and Piano began intriguingly enough but seemed to run out of energy as it went on. In the company it was keeping, Berio’s Sequenza III (an extravagantly demanding piece for solo female voice, Aylish Kerrigan’s on this occasion), it seemed distinctly ill at ease, the sole grasshopper at a very sober party for ants. A final niggle: the composer’s note suggests that her Earthloops ‘explores the full range of the clarinet’. It doesn’t.

As we made our way into the John Field Room for the Michael Alcorn/SARC performance, the space seemed to have metamorphosed entirely. Huge sheets of metal hung down, the unevenly rusted surfaces glowing in subdued light. An array of percussion instruments and assorted objects – plastic, wood, metal – dominated the stage. Alcorn was accompanied by two colleagues from the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Belfast, the Maltese percussionist/composer Renzo Spiteri and the Portuguese composer/digital artist Pedro Rebelo, in what was very much a collective presentation.

This was a drama that did not quite live up to the promise of the opening scene, as metal quivered and groaned to electronic accompaniment in Alcorn’s Deconstructions in Metal I & II. Spiteri is an impressively versatile percussionist; his solos were enjoyably rhythmic, but offered little to the imagination. Rebelo’s Rust, which involved electronically treated percussion and tape, was effective but not especially memorable. Two pieces did not involve live performance. Jason Geistweidt’s Letter from the Trenches had its moments but was also just the kind of piece an electronic studio graduate would produce. The audio aspect of Gordon Delap’s audio-visual work Body Light Corpuscles verged on the banal; the visual aspect, on the other hand, was a delight – abstract flickers of light gradually resolving into an ambiguously flickering human shape, which turned out to be rapidly alternating male and female figures.

(The visual and electronic aspects of the Dwyer and Alcorn concerts might have had particular appeal for music students. It is a pity that the concerts had to take place before the beginning of term.)

There is not a lot to be said about Philip Martin’s concert, not because there was anything wrong with it, but because it encapsulated a particular musical world: the dapper, charming and articulate composer/player; an uncomplicated continuity between the nineteenth century (Schumann’s Piano Quartet) and the twentieth; and accomplished music-making from both the composer and his invitees (the Crawford Piano Trio, Ruxandra Colan (viola), Andreja Malir (harp)). Les Anges de Saint Julien did what harp pieces tend to do; Martin’s Piano Trio No.1, Serendipity, a sequence of seven quite varied movements inspired by paintings in the Crawford Gallery in Cork, came across as a work of substance. For sheer concentration, for hawklike swoop and attack, the performance that really stood out was the composer’s own playing of Franz Reizenstein’s Scherzo in A.

Stephen Gardner’s notes on his own music – in the case of Mutable Sea, he muses on the mutable vs the immutable and tosses us bad Latin, a parody of critical jargon and Nobby Stiles – would lead one to expect an unconventional, irreverent evening of music. The reality was much milder. Having drawn attention to himself in writing, Gardner took a backseat on the night, allowing Odaline de la Martinez, the ebullient leader of the Lontano ensemble, to do the talking. But what about the music? Xenakis’s Dikhtas was less intense than one would have expected. Both Mutable Sea and Martin Butler’s Capistrano Song made for pleasant but unexciting listening. Playing transcriptions of jazz solos is not generally to be recommended, but Bill Evans’ dreamy precision in Peace Piece worked well here. Stormy, menacing, muted, gathering and releasing energy, You Can Beat an Egg did not lack salt and was far more of a mutable sea than the piece of that title.

Opinions will differ as to the relative merits of these composers, but those who have the courage of their convictions present the most interesting choices.

Published on 1 November 2005

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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