The Spectre of Taste: Lebel, Lind, Demoč

Saturday 15 July 2023

You don’t have to be original to be good, but the experimental allows a certain leeway while anything that tends to the conventional in substance runs the risk of setting down its foundations on the shifting sands of taste. I’ve been listening to field studies, a collection of pieces by composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel, and while much of the writing is admirably spare (in evaporation, blue the pianist adds notes on a harmonica in lieu of detail to fill out the bare structure of the piece) or impressively sonorous (even if nothing but shapes and light reflected in the glass conjures up a moody horn section from solo alto flute and baritone sax, aided by tranducers attached to drums), I kept hearing moments where the music tripped over itself. It sounds like LeBel wants her music to be expressive, but then feels obliged to justify that impulse with dramatic flourishes to rationalise the seriousness of her intentions. These flourishes follow popular taste and so resemble moments of movie music, probably meant to be stirring but serving more as distracting lapses in the work’s solidity.

Or I’m just not a very sophisticated listener and I need novelty as a hook on which to hang my perceptions. At the All That Dust launch concert a few weeks back I heard Mark Knoop performing a realisation of Rósa Lind’s piano cycle Trente, completed (or at least last added to) early this year. Trente is itself part of a larger cycle of four compositions (so far?) collectively titled Kandinsky Kunstwerke, three of which are recorded on Lind’s new All That Dust CD. I’d listened to Knoop’s recording of Trente once before the concert and several times since, and I’m only just starting to hear what’s in it. Made from thirty short movements taking up a little under forty minutes, their number, brevity and variability of ordering imply a kaleidoscopic array of highly changeable moments without a focal point; yet there’s a fixity in the overall composition, attributable jointly to Lind’s conceptual framework and Knoop’s holistic comprehension of the forces in play. I read the sleeve notes and came away bamboozled by the invocation of Kandinsky and the immediate association with Galilean astronomy throughout each piece. My understanding was of little more than the music having been produced through extensive labours on a conspiracy board of themes, with what we hear being a manifestation of a highly concentrated tangle of allusions oversaturated with meaning to the point that comprehension becomes extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible. Lind manages to subsume the ontological stress of her subject with a musical language that appears relatively untroubled, even as it is highly charged: not as jarringly discrete as Messiaen’s piano cycles, nor as outlandish as Georges Lentz’s cosmological divinations; which is another way of saying, surprisingly tasteful.

The other two pieces from the Kandinsky Kunstwerke cycle presented here were recorded in Australia about ten years ago. They are also solos, but with additional electronics. Cellist Geoffrey Gartner gives a lean but ominous tone to Extrema: A Galilean Sarabande and Laura Chislett gives what resembles a character piece in the tightly virtuosic flute solo Courbe dominante. I’ve focused more on Trente here as it provides a key to interpreting the other works, but the two shorter works are more immediately accessible, conveying urgency through a compressed lyricism. The electronic and other elements are inaudible for the most part, with both pieces experiencing a sudden, anomalous disruption. Each piece makes a self-evident case for requiring repeated listening; having earned my respect I’ve started to become intrigued and may even be warming to them.

Over the last few years Adrián Demoč has been building up an impressive body of work on record. It’s entirely deserved, with each newly-heard work revealing more facets and shades of an individual, consistently beautiful compositional voice. There’s that appeal to taste again; Demoč appears to follow a muse of highly cultivated simplicity, in the manner of Howard Skempton or Morton Feldman but mimicking neither. Neha is his third CD on Another Timbre and presents two works for orchestra, allowing us to hear how he handles larger forces. As may be expected, it’s with a light touch. In both works the sound is soft and translucent, reducing the number of instruments wherever possible and still sounding intimate in the moments when playing tutti. The title of the 2018 work Neha in fact means ‘tenderness’. It holds a single moment and lingers over it for us to appreciate, seemingly in repose yet sustained by as little movement as necessitated by breathing. The unisons between instruments as they play simple chords gain a faint complexity by Demoč employing the differing timbres and means of producing notes to makes the edges of the pitches fuzz and leach out as the differing overtones mingle; a kind of micro-microtonality. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Marián Lejava conducting) respect the composer’s urge for delicacy and calm in this live recording. The later work is Popínavá hudba, composed for the Ostrava New Music Days 2022 and heard here in a live recording with Petr Kotík conducting the Ostrava New Orchestra. It begins with a short, rising melodic fragment, particularly reminiscent of late Feldman, but follows its own path by quietly asserting its presence in a more organic than structured fashion, using subtle changes in colouration to motivate the nascent melody through almost imperceptible transformations. The orchestra maintains the same presence as a chamber ensemble would, but with much greater complexity below the surface. Towards the end there is a turn, and although it’s unexpected it still feels like it’s part of the larger design at work.