Frank Denyer’s ‘The Fish that became the Sun’

Sunday 1 December 2019

Frank Denyer: The Fish that became the SunFrank Denyer’s hour-long work for chorus and large ensemble The Fish that became the Sun received its premiere at a sold-out performance in Huddersfield last week, some twenty-three years after the work was completed. The work was recorded for Another Timbre last year and has just been released to coincide with the concert. I’ve written about Denyer’s music before, but these were all briefer compositions for much smaller forces. The predominant tone in those pieces was of a very close, personal intimacy. What happens when he composes on a broader scale?

Subtitled ‘Songs of the Dispossessed’, The Fish that became the Sun matches voices with diverse groups of musicians; between them, forty musicians play a total of eighty-seven instruments. The family of sounds drawn together is highly eclectic and restricted to small groups and combinations heard at any one time. The most immediately striking thing about the piece is Denyer’s extensive use of found objects and specially-constructed instruments made of broken and discarded items – junk. This alien orchestra is joined by instruments including sitar, crumhorns, dulcimers and modern Western instruments. Different tunings abound. The use of space for the music is an essential component, enhancing the theatrical dimension of the work. Despite the obvious parallels that can be drawn, the theatre is less like that of Harry Partch and more like the music of George Crumb: a set of tableaux that shift from one scene to the next in highly discrete emotional states, each one a contrast – sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring – yet steadily building up a single, complex image. The strangeness comes from less from the surface and more from the substance, and its significance.

The panoply of unusual sounds (I doubt that many of them have been heard by listeners before) are so unfamiliar as to resemble sounds from nature, less refined and thus less knowable. The chorus sings wordlessly; the musicians dispersed through the space also sing and hum. Moments of simple unison playing clash with microtones and non-uniform timbres. The raw, unpolished order of nature culminates when a pair of children sing the only words heard in the piece. Their song has the gnomic simplicity of a nursery rhyme, along with the fraught ambiguity and underlying cruelty.

The word ‘ritual’ seems to get used too freely when describing pieces by modern composers. The Fish that became the Sun is packed with too much music to be considered, at least in recording, a document of a performance: it succeeds as an extended, purely musical statement, immediately rewarding at each moment. It does, however, operate on the level of a myth. From the title to the rhymes and distant fanfare at the end, we are placed in ther realm of transformative myth, the type of transformation that drives an origin story, to explain where we are now and how we got there. Denyer wrote the piece through the early 90s; Michael Turnbull’s sleeve notes describe the work as a response to the times. History supposedly having ended, we entered uncharted territory. The signs are ominous, and seem even more so now, but Denyer’s transformations are equally hopeful, as with the orchestra made from detritus. How much of culture is a constructed paradise and how much of it is a defence against the darkness? The Fish that became the Sun may signal a path to redemption or a fate to which we are condemned, but we don’t know which.

The recording features many of the musicians at the Huddersfield premiere, the Octandre Ensemble conducted by Jon Hargreaves, the New London Chamber Choir and Consortium5, with Benjamin Marquise Gilmore as the solo violinist. The performance and recording is satisfying to the extent that I can’t imagine the work being carried off with greater clarity or force. In conception, execution and presentation, The Fish that became the Sun is an immense achievement.

Frank Denyer: The Boundaries of Intimacy

Sunday 24 November 2019

This weekend, Frank Denyer’s hourlong work The Fish that became the Sun receives its premeire at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, some twenty-five years after it was composed. It goes a long way to addressing the lack of attention Denyer’s compositions have received, at home and abroad. Another Timbre has already recorded the work and released it to coincide with its live debut; having missed the gig, I intend to write about the disc shortly. The same label has also released a companion disc of shorter works, ranging from the mid-70s to last year, titled The Boundaries of Intimacy.

The title is appropriate, but not as much as the piece from which it is taken, a solo for flute with electronics named Beyond the Boundaries of Intimacy. Back in 2015, writing about Whispers, Another Timbre’s previous release of Denyer’s music, I was struck mostly by that intimate quality of his small-scale muisc. As with true intimacy, it can be confronting, painful, even frightening, especially when given freely as the music is offered here. The opening work Mother, Child and Violin gives us just that: small, private sounds uttered by a woman and a child with equally plain but elusive sounds from a violin. It feels almost voyeuristic; are mother and child making sounds to each other or each to themselves? That ambiguity gives a complexity to that intense relationship and how it may so often change. It’s a much more raw and human portrayal than the conventional, sentimental tableau implied by the title. The sounds are wordless.

All the compositions on this disc share an artlessness in the sounds and gestures; Denyer leaves any phrasing tenderly unformed, like a pre-verbal state of being. In each piece, the musicians seem to be exploring sound, but in a purely private sense as though for themselves – and perhaps immediate others. It is left to the listeners to presume whether they are part of the latter. That wordless state persists, intimacy in speaking through sound instead of through psychological confession. In this music, truth is found on the mythological level, even as it is retold, passed from composer to musician. Who speaks, the composer or the musician? Both and neither.

Talented and sympathetic musicians are needed to give this music its power. Juliet Fraser’s singing makes you think first of its directness and sincerity, with her technical skills evident only in closer analysis. Flautist and longtime Barton Workshop colleague Jos Zwaanenberg performs the title work, the only time Denyer has been persuaded to work with electronics. Zwaanenberg plays at the threshhold of audibility, given near-impossibly fine gradations in emphasis by the composer “between ppppppp and ppppp“. The electronics are almost imperceptible, serving to render the sounds as though without source. The sleeve notes (rare for an Another Timbre release) advise the listener to “imagine them performing intimately, without amplification, and often in an under-voice in order not to disturb the neighbours.”

Violist Elisabeth Smalt revives a solo work Denyer composed for a neglected string instrument he invented in 1980, and Nobutaka Yosjizawa plays both versions of a koto solo composed in 1975. In all of these pieces, the music becomes as dependent on sound as on the state of mind in which musician and listener find themselves. Unlike most compositions, this music cannot live inside one’s head, or on the page. It’s a kind of blessing to be able to hear them at last.

The most recent work, a String Quartet, receives a precarious performance by the Luna String Quartet. Frail sequences of notes rise and fall away, at times like one strange composite instrument very faint and far away, at others like lost, individual voices that never join together in force. Other sounds intrude, the musicians make unpolished vocalisations – wordless again. All four instruments are heavily mutes. This near-silence constrains a great, inner turmoil as the composition constantly strains the boundaries of expression and music. If music is art, how does this artform give voice to voiceless thought? Denyer’s quartet may well be the strangest in the genre, and the most disturbing.

A Portrait of Frank Denyer

Thursday 21 June 2018

An all-too-rare chance last weekend to hear live music by Frank Denyer, an English composer treated like a guilty secret in his home country. Not that a gala evening at The Proms would show him to best advantage – the dim, confined theatre of The Print Room at The Coronet in Notting Hill was well suited to his intimate music. It’s heard best when experienced close: that intimacy can be confronting at times, almost painful, in a way that leaves the audience privately exhilarated.

I’m not going back to read what I wrote when first encountering Denyer’s music on a CD released by Another Timbre but I remember it as a raw and challenging experience. In most cases, such descriptions would refer to a music of extremes – whether of volume, pitch or emotions – but not here. If listeners find an emotional power in Denyer’s music, it comes from within themselves in response to the strangeness of the sounds he finds, a strangeness that is yet entirely natural. There is nothing outlandish, after all, in a yearning violin solo played against a rattle of bones and the faint echo of a viola, or in the blowing of ocarinas against the thud of sticks beating canvas. It still leaves an uncanny impression in the memory.

The concert was staged by the Octandre Ensemble, who played Denyer’s After the Rain so baeutifully at Principal Sound a couple of years ago. So good to hear them expand this into a dedicated evening. As composition, Denyer’s music lives by instinct. We heard how secure his instincts are in the early works from the 1970s played at the start of the concert. The focus is on melody, a single line set against silence. Heard offstage in darkness, Unsion I left the audience to wonder how flute, violin, viola and voice were blended into one iridescent colour. In Quick, quick, the Tamberan is coming, the melody is played across four bass flutes, each with elision and elaborations so that the four voices intertwine. The Hanged Fiddler set the soloist against viola and percussion, as described above.

In the late works, melody is dissolved into frail, isolated sounds shared between instruments and voices. In Two Voices with Axe, male and female voices (Juliet Fraser and Denyer himself) vocalise in the same register against flute and string instruments. Percussion consists of small, carefully chosen sounds, and a player splitting wood with an axe. A sound pallette comparable to Morton Feldman in the Sixties is torqued into a fraught tension by the axe’s harsh, uncontrolled sounds (after each blow, the flying fragments of wood ricochet and roll across the floor). The concert ended with the premiere of a new work, Screens. Again, there was theatre in the presence of the musicians, who stepped back and forth behind folding dressing screens as they played. The screens act as subtle mutes, enhancing the sense of remoteness for which the objects were designed. Denyer walked onstage to comment on the music, as written into the score. The words reflect on the music, the stage, his presence and his own commentary; “Some sounds are words”. The piece has an elemental simplicity, which makes its oblique self-reflexiveness all the more enigmatic as an artistic statement. “Occasionally, perhaps, some sounds are gates…. Oddly intermittent.”

Frank Denyer’s Whispers

Tuesday 31 March 2015

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If only for having the advantage of hindsight, it may be easier to rediscover the past than to discover the present. I got sent some new CDs from Another Timbre, the label that’s been putting out essential recordings of music by Laurence Crane, James Saunders, Bryn Harrison, Catherine Lamb, etc etc. One of these discs is a collection of pieces by Frank Denyer.

I’d been aware of Denyer mostly as a musician, and from his work with The Barton Workshop. It was only on hearing a broadcast of his piece The Colours of Jellyfish for soprano, children’s chorus and orchestra that I realised he was a composer with a unique voice. The pieces on this new disc, Whispers, are a few years older than that orchestral piece, and recorded mostly in 2009: a neat example of rediscovering the present.

This album can be shocking in places. Even more spare and seemingly artless than I expected, the music takes familiar techniques but approaches them from a new angle, creating a paradoxical mood that quietly works on the listener. There’s a tense feeling of expectation, or apprehension; not from the music itself, but from my wariness of what it might all turn out to mean.

The opening piece, Whispers, is about precisely that: Denyer himself whispering, humming, muttering, a halting procession of small vocal sounds. Like a man half-singing, absent-mindedly to himself. Listening in seems almost intrusive, but there are other things going on: small tappings and rustlings from various noisemakers, and at times a viola plays almost inaudibly in the distance. (The entire album is recorded very quietly, suggesting that without careful listening much of it may be lost.) The sounds vacillate between unconscious and self-conscious, the act of producing them at the same level of intensity and restraint over 20 minutes denies any accusation of self-indulgence or even self-expression. The meaning remains as unknowable, or knowable, as any unconscious sound.

The entire album flows seamlessly from one piece to the next. Woman with Jinashi Shakuhachi is, like Whispers, precisely what the title describes. The mouth sounds change to the musician Kiku Day’s voice, alternating with raw shakuhachi sounds until the two lose distinction, and again the tapping sounds. It’s tempting to think of the music as some sort of ritual, but again the ordering of sounds is too organic, too intimate. Again the sounds seem almost unconscious, as though they were the by-product of some other activity that remains unknown.

As an interlude, The Barton Workshop’s performance of Riverine Delusions may be the most conventional piece here – it’s evocative, but the image it paints is almost transparent, with faint gestures suggesting big movements, the indelible remnants of an image faded almost to invisibility. The keening flute stands out in relief, a preparation for the next work. Again, the title Two Voices with Axe explains everything but reveals nothing. A male and female voice blend in a tissue of sounds with muted instruments. The jarring intrusion of the axe comes almost as a release, breaking the tension of expectation that something loud might finally happen. Despite the most private and personal circumstances of the music-making here, the music that emerges from it is like a wild force of nature – it always seems peaceful and benign on the surface, but all along I’ve been conscious that it could turn on me without warning.

The axe-blows sound rich and varied, with no suggestion that they were contrived for aesthetic effect. The late Bob Gilmore, who produced the album, is the axeman.

In the final piece, A Woman Singing, Juliet Fraser’s voice mirrors the opening of the album. Again barely audible when played under normal conditions, the voice is suspended in a stream of unconsciousness, the emotional range suppressed to a nearly internalised expression. By being so withdrawn, the singer’s exposure feels all the more stark, through the lack of mediation, the temptation to listen in closer, like an eavesdropper.

These works are not improvised but fully, meticulously composed. There is a fine, complex understanding of the subtleties of music at work here, of the material of sound, the acting of performing and the relationship of musician to listener. At first the sound world seems close to the very refined sensibility of Martin Iddon’s excellent pneuma, which Another Timbre released last year. Denyer’s approach and musical concerns are different, of course, and so is his music: this is made evident, however, not through any ideological or programmatic pronouncement, but through the very stuff of the music itself, that entices and gnaws at the listener. The reactions this music may provoke are complex and variable, and I would not like to try to define them now.