Northern Perspective on New Music

Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble (Photo: Stuart Calvin)

Northern Perspective on New Music

Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble from Northern Ireland have recently released their debut album, 'A Terrible Beauty' – a double-CD of 12 compositions. Mark Fitzgerald reviews.

Since its foundation in 2013 Hard Rain have established themselves as a Northern equivalent to Concorde; a Pierrot-type ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano) that specialises in the performance of new Irish compositions, programmed contextually with works from Europe and other parts of the world. The new two-CD release from Diatribe presents a representative sample of their Irish repertoire with the majority of pieces dating from between 2016 and 2020. The core group for the recording – Aisling Agnew (flute), Sarah Watts (clarinet), Joanne Quigley-McParland (violin), Dave McCann (cello), Daniel Browell (piano) and Alex Petcu (percussion) – is joined by guests clarinettist Will Curran, violinist Ciaran McCabe and cellists Thomas Jackson and Adrian Mantu. The performances are conducted by Sinead Hayes. Most composers are represented by pieces lasting between 8 and 12 minutes, the exception being Greg Caffrey, the artistic director of Hard Rain, whose two multi-movement works last close to half an hour in total. On disc, the pieces have been ordered to highlight the contrasting styles of the various composers. 

The disc takes its title, A Terrible Beauty, from the first of Caffrey’s pieces, though one wonders whether (with all its ambiguity) this really is a good title for a collection of new music. Caffrey’s piece consists of three movements all of which take their titles from Yeats’ poetry. The first movement takes its title ‘These are the clouds about the fallen sun’ from a poem in The Green Helmet, the second movement uses the opening of ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, as its title, and the final movement ‘…for peace comes dropping slow’ uses words from ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. However, the composer notes that rather than attempting a literal expression of the poems, the work explores the general moods of each text, which he describes as deep loss and sadness, desolation and anarchy, and uneasy tranquillity respectively. The resultant piece is a rather fitful, episodic string of sections with little in the way of memorable material. In each of his Three movements on the work of William Scott two instruments are given particular prominence within the ensemble, flute and bass clarinet in the first, violin and cello in the second, and piano and vibraphone in the third. The first is conventionally balanced in structure but the other two movements explore their material in a similarly diffuse manner to A Terrible Beauty. 

Amy Rooney’s Phosphenes is the shortest work in the collection and consists of a bright major key opening in which fragments are surrounded by tremolandi. After just over two and a half minutes of this, the section ends and is succeeded by a simple neo-romantic threnody. One feels that the work might have had a stronger presence if either idea had been explored more fully. Frank Corcoran’s Nine Looks at Pierrot is a series of short movements which Corcoran describes as showing different sides of Pierrot’s soul. However, these aphoristic studies don’t really demonstrate much in terms of variety; all but the fourth give an impression of a series of expressionist clichés, so that Pierrot comes across as a fairly one dimensional guy. 

Kevin O’Connell’s A Batutta is described as being concerned with the idea of playing with the listener’s expectations. One can think of many compositions that successfully defy expectations in far more extreme ways than this piece, where the motivic working is clearly audible throughout. Curiously, within the parameters of O’Connell’s musical language, the less extreme subversion employed (achieved though changes of texture and gesture) results in a piece that just sounds disjointed rather than surprising or unexpected. One gets the sense of a very traditional piece being forced to do something that does not suit the material within the short timeframe. 

Shimmering presence
John Buckley’s Three Mobiles after Alexander Calder are inspired by ‘the shimmering presence’ of Calder’s work with the individual movements named after Snow Flurry, Black Widow and Streetcar respectively. The most striking elements of these are the delicately impressionistic opening of the first movement and the Messiaen-ish idea that kicks off Streetcar. In this final movement, the performance seems too careful and controlled, and does not have the sense of abandon and excitement that the music would seem to invite. The same issue arises with Rhona Clarke’s Non-Stop, a light and humorous work that maintains a constant irregular rhythmic motion throughout. The performance sounds a little too polite and careful, but one could imagine the piece making a very effective finale to a concert. 

However, as with all such collections some pieces present a more immediately compelling experience for the listener. Two works with spectral components are provided by Iain McCurdy and Gráinne Mulvey. McCurdy’s Found Sounds Lost is ‘informed by’ a spectral analysis of a recording of Belfast’s Albert Memorial Clock and a synthesized electronic part added to the ensemble enhances the drama of the opening of the work. The breakthrough to the pitch A about two thirds of the way through the piece might be a bit predictable but the dissolution to the close is effectively managed. The title of Mulvey’s LUCA refers to the ‘last universal common ancestor’, a conjectured single stem organism from which all life descends. The work emerges from a chaotic mix of glissandi and isolated sounds. Static passages, many of them based on an E fundamental, are given greater intensity via the unpredictable accumulation of microtonal sounds before they pitch headlong into wilder volatile sections. By the time the work disperses into a haze of glissandi over an uneasy piano ostinato one feels as if one has traversed more than a mere 12 minutes of material. 

At opposite ends of the mood spectrum, but equally gripping in effect, are pieces by Simon Mawhinney and Ryan Molloy. Mawhinney’s The Zeddy Dance is a punchy, spikily obsessive piece, but one that is constructed with a genuine sense of the unexpected, with sudden Boulezian pauses on trills and weirdly balletic moments interspersed throughout. The work is taut, focussed and exhilarating to listen to. Molloy’s Gortnagarn II is a weighty meditative piece that draws in a wholly convincing way on sounds and ornamentation found in traditional music. The music varies between passages of slow pitches in uniform rhythm (the score uses free notation), such as at the opening when we hear something like the ghost of a fiddler’s melody, and places where slow unfolding ornamented airs float above the texture. The whole piece has a tender quality about it that draws the listener completely into its withdrawn soundworld.   

A range of colour
Jane O’Leary’s two movement work beneath the dark blue waves, which opens the first disc, is an extraordinary demonstration of the sheer range of colour it is possible to extract from this type of ensemble. One could argue that placing this as the first track on CD 1 was unfortunate for some of the other composers, as it highlighted their more limited aural palette. In the first movement, certain pitches tend to act as anchors around which the instruments interweave and oscillate, giving the music an iridescence. In the second movement the emphasis seems to shift to a series of solo melodies, primarily on piano, that emerge from the texture created by the ensemble before the music quietly dissipates. What this description does not indicate is the tension and drama that is created in this movement, which unfolds like a mysterious landscape. While working on the review of the rest of the disc this was the piece I found myself drawn back to most frequently, just listening to it for sheer pleasure.   

Apart from previously stated reservations about the performances of some of the faster pieces the performances are highly accomplished. However, the range of dynamics is limited, and, while some of this may be attributable to the performances, one gets the sense that the flattening out of dynamics is a by-product of the miking and recording. The lack of any pause between the tracks on the CDs makes for rather abrupt and sometimes jarring leaps from one piece to the next. Despite such niggles, in terms of performance standard and range of music commissioned, this CD set makes one look forward with anticipation to Hard Rain’s second decade promoting Irish composition.

A Terrible Beauty is released on the Diatribe label. To purchase a limited edition double-CD with 16-page booklet, or a digital version of the album, visit https://shop.diatribe.ie/album/a-terrible-beauty. To listen, click on the image below.

Published on 10 November 2021

Mark Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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