Lisa Illean: arcing, stilling, bending, gathering

Wednesday 5 June 2024

It’s been eight years since I first heard Lisa Illean’s chamber orchestra piece Land’s End, in a concert with Brett Dean conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At the time I wondered which way her music would develop; whether her use of microtonality and some of the more reaching aspects of spectralism would be the basis for further exploration, or fade away as a youthful affectation to distinguish her emerging voice from other composers working in a similar atmospheric vein. She has been steadily building up a body of work, largely in the UK, including a Proms chamber premiere. NMC Recordings has now produced a portrait album dedicated to her work, arcing, stilling, bending, gathering, which provides an opportunity to take stock.

Land’s End is here, performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. It seems crisper than the slightly woozy rendition at the BBC, making the orchestra sound smaller in force but with greater clarity of detail as it picks out the changes in contrasting instrumental colours as much as the arpeggios in just intonation. The other three works are more recent, all from the 2020s and deal with smaller groupings of musicians. Juliet Fraser returns to sing A through-grown earth, previously heard on record as a work for soprano and pre-recorded electronics. The piece has since been revised to add a chamber ensemble of five players, in this instance the Explore Ensemble. Fraser sings lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins set with unusual slowness, as though time has been suspended. Illean holds the opening moment for as long as possible, letting it rise and fall out of almost nothing before settling onto a single pitch. The otherworldly atmosphere of its earlier incarnation is compounded here by the contrast with the acoustic instruments disturbing the serenity of the sampled instruments, augmenting the work with more complex timbral and harmonic colour. Both Explore and Fraser provide a resolute calm that contains these tensions without erasing them, and Fraser’s singing is more direct with less overt ornamentation. The newer version lingers and pauses in more places, adding breathing space.

Hearing this in its first incarnation I suggested that Illean’s music sounded delicate and “occasionally threatened to retreat into preciousness”. As the changes to A through-grown earth indicate, that risk has been deftly avoided. Microtonality and electronics (live or pre-recorded) are used skilfully in the two other pieces heard here, woven unobtrusively into the fabric. Tiding II (silentium) is a trio for the percussion-piano duo of George Barton and Siwan Rhys, with David Zucchi on clarinet*, a piece which brings Illean’s talent for mixing instruments to the forefront. A pensive soliloquy for piano provides the focal point as a recognisable sound, while various washes of harmonics and overtones ebb and flow against it. The other sounds are a complex of electronic sustain, held clarinet* pitches and gongs with other small percussive sounds rolled or struck, including the piano strings, with all three musicians balancing each other to form an organic whole. The matter of the music is wonderfully expressive, with the technical ingenuity feeling like a natural means for conveying its content. The piece is matched by the title work: arcing, stilling, bending, gathering is a 2022 composition for piano, string ensemble and pre-recorded sounds played again by the Explore Ensemble. It’s a supremely beautiful quasi-concerto, with a more active piano part prone to outbursts of animated lyricism, countered by brooding moments of stillness and bowed chords on high strings that push and pull against the piece’s progress. At times the strings play on harmonics over the piano’s notes, while alien elements of just intonation and extended overtones in the electronic part quietly underpaint the scene with ghostly after-images. Explore make the most of this uncanny, nameless exoticism that lurks beneath the surface beauty. It’s a bold, accomplished composition that delivers on the promise first offered by Land’s End.

* It sez here. The tone suggests soprano sax, but that might be the electronic processing.