More Timbres: Frank Denyer, Evan Johnson, Bryn Harrison

Monday 6 March 2023

Another Timbre continues to advance the noble cause of Frank Denyer: the latest is a double, making his complete Melodies cycle from the mid 1970s available to the public for the first time. Composed over several years, it’s a series of twenty-six short compositions for a multicoloured array of small ensembles and soloists. Listening to the cycle as a whole gives a fascinating insight into Denyer’s conception of sound and composition; he makes the most startling leaps in imagination appear to occur to the musicians naturally and spontaneously. Melodies begins as a series of ‘one-note’ melodies, opening out in range until it reaches an epilogue made up of fifteen pitches. It’s a steady spiral of growth, sound more organic than mathematical. The peculiarity of Denyer’s music is always very human and direct: the ‘one-note’ pieces use flexible intonation and rhythm to create something alive from the most marginal substance. Solo horn is accompanied by clicking stones, added as though the percussion is an incidental, semi-conscious articulation. From there the cycle doesn’t exactly build upon itself, but expands upon its initial driving urge, using instruments that are muted and modified, baroque and exotic, or simple voices including, at one point, the composer’s own. The performances here were compiled over several months, with the Scordatura Ensemble, Luna String Quartet and vocal ensemble Mad Song making each piece feel like inspired improvisation (with some thrilling unison work from the Lunas near the end). In its means and materials, Melodies draws upon and then confounds what was then our emerging understanding of art that had been traditionally labelled ‘primitive’, raising its cumulative effect into a powerful statement.

A new set of solos, duos and trios by Evan Johnson titled L’art de toucher follows on from the set of piano pieces lists, little stars put out on All That Dust in 2021. The title is highly appropriate for Johnson’s music, even as it references the three pieces here titled L’art de toucher le clavecin, none of which include a keyboard. The focal instrument in this triptych is the piccolo, that most friable of instruments, heard solo, with violin, and with both violin and percussion, although not necessarily in that chronological order. The brittle and the ethereal are the two extremes Johnson tries to embrace at once in his highly detailed compositions, eking out a hard-won yet fragile physicality in sound. The music is all about touch, or its absence, where it begins and ends, hovering on that threshhold where physical contact is manifested as sound, leaving you wondering at times if you’ve heard anything at all. The mechanical intervention of the piano in lists, little stars prohbits such subtleties being employed to their full effect, so the pieces here come across as more readily intelligble and less precious in their reticence. Richard Craig and Susanne Peters interpret their piccolo parts with a blessed absence of affectation, accompanied by violinist Sarah Saviet and Rie Watanabe on percussion. The larger piece Plan and section of the same reservoir is performed by the acclaimed Trio Accanto with the rarefied brilliance you would expect. Most haunting is thaes oferode, thisses swa maeg, in which Juliet Fraser and Séverine Ballon play a duet for soprano and cello that blends their sounds in ways that suggest they are being shadowed by a ghostly clarinet.

Sarah Saviet returns for a bravura performance of Bryn Harrison’s violin solo A Coiled Form. Before hearing it, immediate comparisons can be drawn with his earlier piano piece Vessels: both began as short pieces that were then extended to over three times their original length. Both require a tightrope act of calmness and concentration to sustain and preserve a moment to immense duration; in effect, both are small pieces, just very long. The unexpected difference comes in the flow of the music. Whereas Vessels and other pieces by Harrison unroll in a steady, unbroken cascade, A Coiled Form is disrupted by crosscurrents and eddies. Bowed sowftly sul pont throughout, Saviet’s violin flits and skitters like a Sciarrino caprice, negotiating a pathway through a maze of twisting little passages, all different. At times, the music doubles back upon itself, or gets caught in a cul-de-sac and loops for a while before taking up a previously-discarded thread. The quietly obsessive persistence of the piece can be enervating, but Saviet doesn’t let it show. Even heard as background, its sudden conclusion after some fifty minutes leaves a profound absence in its wake.