Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 3)

Wednesday 7 August 2019

(Part 2 here.)

The fiftieth Music We’d Like To Hear concert began with Séverine Ballon playing from her compositions for solo cello, which I’ve described before from a recital and her inconnaisance CD she released last year. These were followed by A line alongside itself, a new piece by Newton Armstrong which extended Ballon’s playing with electronics. By complete contrast, the second half the gig began with Michael Parsons’ 1995 electronic composition Tenebrio, an unusual piece quite unlike other pieces I’ve heard by him. Composed on a pair of Yamaha CX5M synthesisers (one such unit was on display for the audience to enjoy the authentic retro-techno vibe), the piece see-sawed between grainy drones and low-resolution noise.

I’m glossing over this stuff a bit because the final piece felt like a culmination of the entire series so far. The curators had flown over the American soprano Beth Griffith to perform John McGuire’s intricate vocal juggernaut A Cappella. Having presented a superb rendition of McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos two years earlier, this all-too-rare opportunity to hear his music was even more ambitious. A Cappella was written for Griffith in the mid 90s, weaving together brief samples of her voice with live singing, in melodic and spatial counterpoint between left and right loudspeakers. The piece unfurls with a steady, unyielding momentum, with the crispness and directness of rhythm and harmonies reminiscent of American ‘post-minimalist’ composers – without, however, any of the associated irritation. If heard inattentively, it resembles one of those 80s-90s pieces with a superficial brightness that quickly becomes inane and lethargic. That misconception soon disappears, as A Cappella continues to reveal new details and turns in expression without expanding upon the initial material. The piece is redeemed by this strong framework of compositional logic, resisting the need for subjective intervention while still being more sophisticated than simple bell-ringing patterns; there is also a suppleness to the rhythms engineered into the steady pulse. Griffith’s singing was essential to bringing out these shadings and depths in the musical texture to their fullest. Standing before the audience with a handheld microphone, she alternately led and followed the disembodied chorus that surrounded her, turning her head from one to the other, shifting effortlessly between registers, skimming the surface of the polyphony and then suddenly darting up to hover above it.