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.

Juliet Fraser, spilled out from tangles

Thursday 23 April 2020

It’s good to remember that music is still being made. There’s a new album out soon by Juliet Fraser – I’ve raved about her singing before. In terms of presentation, spilled out from tangles is more of a showcase for the singer herself than for a particular composer. Four pieces, each by a different composer, all of them for soprano with only electronics for accompaniment. All four works were written for Fraser; the oldest composer here is in her early forties, the youngest not yet thirty. Throughout the disc, electronics are used only to provide backing: the emphasis here is less on advanced technology and more on how it is used in different ways to provide a sympathetic pairing with the voice.

Nomi Epstein’s collections for Juliet is a simple arrangement of glissandi in vocalise, with several recorded versions of Fraser heard simultaneously. Strangely, with nothing but voice, this piece sounds the most electronic: as tones merge and diverge in slow sweeps, beating frequencies and modulations arise in ways that augment the voice into something more than human. Fraser sings pure tones – almost; there is always some warmth in her voice, a vibrato more felt than heard. What seems at first a technical exercise becomes a much more reflective and intimate experience as the piece progresses. Epstein places much of the construction and interpretation of the piece on the singer; it’s a much more complex process than appears to the casual listener. Fraser’s realisation imbues the music with a sense of development and direction, making it sound natural and deceptively easy.

Lisa Illean’s A through-grown earth sets lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins to an ensemble of sampled and recorded strings, bowed and plucked, but subtly transformed. Harp and zither gain a harmonic sheen that hovers in the background, high overtones joining Fraser’s duplicated voice in ghostly chorus. She sings delicately, but with a quiet strength, her vibrato more expressive when signing poetry. Illean’s music often has that delicate quality too, which in the past has occasionally threatened to retreat into preciousness but is redeemed by her interest in just intonation and microtonality. Colouration inevitably takes on a darker, deeper hue and both composer and singer avoid the easier choices. The electronics in this piece allow more control of the tuning and add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

In this context, Sivan Eldar’s Heave feels the most conventional work. Fraser sings with great sensitivity and sincerity “a story of growth: out of the earth, into one’s own body and, finally, memory… body into light”, with an elegantly composed electronic soundscape. There’s plenty of tastefully detailed geological sounds reminiscent of the BBC Natural History Unit at its most accomplished, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve heard it all somewhere before, more than once. Lawrence Dunn’s While we are both returns to the same form as Illean’s work, of Caitlin Doherty’s poetry set to music in just intonation. The unfamiliar tuning is played on purely electronic instruments, with no obvious acoustic model. Just intonation lends itself well to unhurried music, and Dunn’s piece slowly unfolds in a dreamlike haze. Fraser sings with even greater expressivity here, almost like a lied, which just adds to the strangeness when the suspended harmonies break into high-pitched little trills. It feels simultaneously like a very early work for FM synthesisers and something very new.

The sleeve notes list two of the works as receiving their first public performance at Kettle’s Yard on 2 April. Sadly, that never happened, of course. Hopefully Fraser will be able to perform this programme live, sooner rather than later.

Australia Now and Then

Monday 18 April 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of music which I should talk about, both live and on CD. The CDs will come up later; for starters I’ve been thinking about this concert at the BBC Studios in Maida Vale a couple of weeks ago.

Brett Dean was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a programme of modern Australian composers. It’s the type of programme I’d normally shy away from – because of, not despite, being Australian and having heard concerts organised on the same premise back home. When a large institution is involved – an orchestra, a national broadcaster – things usually attempt to be overly safe and overly “representative”. The latter principle manifests itself in trying to cram in a number of slighter, lesser works by a broad variety of composers which don’t really gel together. Like new music in the UK, Australian music in Australia still needs to defend its own small space.

Regardless of any national slant, Dean’s programme of works was beautifully focussed, illuminating a particular thread of musical thought found in a group of diverse Australian composers working today. The introduction to the programme notes made this intent clear, to look beyond the customary identification of Australian art with the unique nature and landscape it inhabits. More importantly, the concert portrayed Australian music as being distinguished by an engagement with the rest of the world, building an increasingly complex dialogue with other cultures.

For a long time, the question of identity in Australian art was often framed as a debate between two sides, pro- and anti-. On one side, “internationalists” would deride parochialism (and imitate any new avant-garde trends in Europe and America) while “nationalists” would chauvinistically promote a local vernacular (and imitate one particular trend in Europe and America). It’s a mindset that’s hard to shake off, particularly if you make decisions for a funding body.

The concert opened with one older work, Richard Meale’s Clouds Now and Then from 1969. It’s a significant work, with its musical language derived from Messiaen and its static, contemplative form inspired by Basho’s poetry. Incorporating ideas from Europe and Japan, it floats between worlds rather than seeking dependence on one or the other. This give-and-take continued through the concert, both musically and biographically. Some of the composers – Thomas Meadowcroft, Anthony Pateras, Lisa Ilean – now live in London or Germany, while Georges Lentz was born in Luxembourg and moved to Australia in his twenties.

Ilean’s Land’s End drew upon a similar sound-world to Meale, enhanced with microtones. Meadowcroft’s Peacemaker Tattoo and Dean’s own Engelsflügel confronted European composers directly, Mahler and Brahms respectively. With Dean, it was a passionate exploration of musical ideas; with Meadowcroft, a modest, somewhat deflating side-step, equal parts deference and aversion. Lentz’s Caeli enarrant… III is an eclectic procession of disparate elements unified by the composer’s personal spiritual vision, combining Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, astronomy, serialism, chance and silence.

Both Meadowcroft and Pateras in his violin concerto Immediata appeared as performers, using an open-reel tape deck to record, play back and manipulate sounds in real time. (I’m an old friend of Pateras so I’ll try not to get too enthusiastic.) Immediata was built out of an eclectic, disruptive improvisation, elaborated by divergent combinations of instruments. Pateras recorded soloist Thomas Gould’s amplified violin and proceeded to speed, slow, warp and distort the sounds, at times going off into cadenzas of his own, in a manner reminiscent of the electronic interpolations of Varèse’s Déserts. There’s a tension between the music that’s fixed and that’s ephemeral, between the notated and improvised both in origin and performance, and of preservation and loss where, perversely, the tape recording is discarded and the piece must persist through performance of the written score.

I think BBC Radio 3 expects to broadcast this concert in August this year.