Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 11 February 2011

ELISION Ensemble: Transference, Strange Forces

Transference: works by Liza Lim, Bryn Harrison, Mary Bellamy, Aaron Cassidy
Strange Forces: works by Liza Lim, Richard Barrett, Klaus K. Hübler, Evan Johnson, Aaron Cassidy and Timothy McCormack
ELISION Ensemble HCR02CD (Transference) and HCR03CD (Strange Forces)

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The recent death of Milton Babbitt deprived university-based new music of its most high profile advocate. Babbitt argued that university music departments should become sanctuaries for new music, which was unlikely to be welcomed or understood elsewhere. It's a view that has been hotly debated over the years, with most university-based composers considering the idea counterproductive. But the first of these two CDs demonstrates an entirely different benefit that academia can bring to contemporary composition, namely integrated support through the processes of creation, performance, recording and dissemination.
The liner notes, informative as they are, are a little reticent about the events behind the recordings. But from what I can make out, the Australian ELISION ensemble visited the University of Huddersfield for some sort of residency. All of the works bar one were created as part of that. The ensemble then performed and recorded the works in London and Bremen, presumably with the financial support of the university. The recordings were then chosen for the inaugural release of a new music record label, also run by the university.
The coherency of this approach is to be commended, and the stability that it affords can only be to the benefit of the creative process. It should come as no surprise that the aesthetic of the resulting music is also fairly consistent. That's not to say that it all sounds the same, rather that the composers involved are all addressing the same musical issues, while each retaining their own individual voice.
The event that spawned the music was called 'Performing the body', and it is fair to say that notions of the corporeal or the bodily underpin many of the works. Various extended performing techniques are used to translate the physical make-up of each of the instruments into representative sound. So in the opening track, Liza Lim's Invisibility, very guttural, woody sounds are produced, in part through the use of a 'guiro' bow, on which the hair is wound round the wood. And there are all sorts of harmonic sounds in which the physical material of the over-wound strings becomes the focus. There is nothing transcendental about these sounds, they are rather an illustration and even celebration of the prosaic facts of their own origins.
For me, the most interesting track on the disc is surface forms (repeating) by Bryn Harrison. Here again, notions of transcendence and sublimation are studiously avoided in favour of a focus on the minutae of the surface level textures. It seems, and I may be wrong, that the work employs just a handful of pitch classes, which the instruments and mezzo soprano voice circle around. Yet the surface of the music is relatively complex, always changing and always interesting. The result is a paradoxical situation where the surface level textures seem always to allude to deeper things within the music, yet that deeper level just isn't there. And the music always sounds like it wants to move on, yet is stuck in this one place.
The second half of the disc is dominated by three works by Aaron Cassidy. His And the scream, Bacon's scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion) is for a mixed ensemble of eight players. The idea of a scream fits well into the general theme of the bodily made audible, and as the Bacon reference in the title suggests, the approach is both subtle and visceral. It is mostly made up of busy lines from the various instruments, often muted or otherwise artificially subdued. The lines seem largely independent, apart from on occasions where an outburst from one of the instruments provokes indignant responses from the others.
The second disc Strange Forces continues along similar lines. The main difference is the instrumentation, strings and woodwind dominate in Transference, while Strange Forces showcases music, mostly by the same composers, but for trumpet and trombone. Actually, that is simplifying things, the two players perform on five different instruments, including the quarter-tone flugelhorn and the alto trombone. They are also joined by a third player for the final work, Disfix by Timothy McCormack, who plays various clarinets.
The tone is again set by Liza Lim with Wild Winged One, a trumpet solo, which like her cello solo on the previous disc, includes a wide range of playing effects that highlight the physical realities of the sound production.
The second track is a work called Aurora by Richard Barrett, but those with an allergy to New Complexity need not fear. This is certainly a complex score, but the there is daylight between the phrases, and there is little of the obsessive maximalism that characterises his larger scores. The relationship between the two instruments (quarter-tone flugelhorn and alto trombone) is fascinating, in that they seem to follow each other around the stave. It is not imitation in the traditional sense, more like strong mutual influence. And the composer has clearly worked very closely with the performers to exploit the timbral palates of their two unusual instruments.
Richard Barrett's involvement in this project raises the question of the influence of New Complexity on the other composers represented. The music on these two discs is clearly not New Complexity as such, it is much more open in its textures and much more approachable in general, but the long shadow of Brian Ferneyhough hangs over it all the same. None of this music is contrapuntal in the traditional sense, but there is a linearity here which owes a debt to the New Complexity school. Then there is the use of instrumental timbre and extended performing techniques, not for purely colouristic aims, as in Polish Sonorism, but rather to find new ways of allowing the mechanics of instrumental technique to keep pace with the endless invention of the composer's imagination. Perhaps New Complexity is dead, or at least dying, and the music here represents its most direct successor. Time will tell.
Both of these discs, and Strange Forces in particular, owe their success at every level to the virtuosity of the performers. Considering the amount of avant-garde trumpet and trombone music that was written in the 1960s and 70s, you'd think there was nothing left to say. But the sheer virtuosity of Tristram Williams (on trumpet) and Benjamin Marks (trombone) has opened up whole new vistas for the composers they work with. Similarly with the other members of the ELISION Ensemble on Transference, and special mention should go to cellist Séverine Wright and oboist Peter Veale.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson provides useful and informative liner notes to both CDs, so kudos to him, and also to whoever it was in Huddersfield who had the foresight to hire him for the job. One good point that he makes is that many of these works are dependant of a good acoustic to have their proper effect. I'd extend that point to the quality of the reproduction in audio recording. As listeners to the recording, we are at an automatic disadvantage, especially as so many of the works celebrate the close connection between the sound and the physical means of sound production. Fortunately, then, the audio reproduction on both CDs is excellent and does full justice to the wide array of sound colours and dynamics employed. An excellent start for the HCR record label project, and I look to hearing their future instalments.
Gavin Dixon

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