Artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, Claire Edwardes is almost alone on this CD, although one of its ten tracks features the clarinet of Jason Noble in collaboration with the percussionist’s vibraphone. Half of the content comes from Melody Eotvos, an Australian composer currently resident in the United States of America, and her contributions seem to have been written for Edwardes and/or her ensemble. The other local content comes from Damien Ricketson, one of Edwardes’ Offspring colleagues, and the partnership of Marcus Whale and Tom Smith who present the cryptically titled Work: part 1 and Work: part 2.
To open and close the album, Edwardes goes to the North American continent. Her first gambit is Nostalgia by Canadian composer Vincent Ho, a vibraphone solo that revisits the composer’s percussion concerto, The Shaman. This slow movement has no modernist terrors but meanders impressionistically around an E flat Major fulcrum before flirting with near-dissonance, then reverting at the last minute to the euphonious simplicity of its opening phrases. Edwardes is not stretched but gives an attractive, languorous account of pages that have absolutely no distinctiveness.
Closing the disc, Edwardes brings both vibraphone and xylophone into play for a version of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint of 1982. Originally for trios of alto flutes, flutes and piccolos and one solo part, all pre-recorded, with a live solo flute part, this work is the second-longest track and – as you’d anticipate – the least interesting. As usual, scraps are piled on top of each other in a mosaic that masquerades as rhythmically ingenious but is even less satisfying than usual as the displacement of perception towards which these patterns so earnestly aspire borders on the simple-minded.
The tragedy is that this passes for modern-day counterpoint: a going-nowhere layering of lines which divides into discrete sections that seem to start up whenever the composer gets tired of his own lack of invention. I understand the hypnotic attraction of the minimalist style and practice but can find nothing to admire or engross in its workings. What is intensely dispiriting is the reduction to basic inanity that a product like Vermont Counterpoint involves. Our art reaches a contrapuntal mastery in Bach, gets even more complex in Schoenberg and Boulez – and we wind up with this triviality.
Mind you, Reich and his colleagues aren’t totally accountable for a latter-day lowering in compositional craft standards. The last century started with an explosion of rhythmic possibilities in The Rite of Spring and a few decades later we are confronted by the clod-hopping aesthetic dead-end that is rock; our insights into the ephemeral reach a kind of mini-summit with the Missa Papae Marcelli and the same aspiration results, 400 years later, in Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life. Sound artists like Debussy and Schoenberg expand horizons so that modern-day inheritors of their blazoning paths can stand still in the Hollywood film recording studios; Stockhausen and Pousseur explore the potential of electronic sound-manipulation and, some decades later, the personification of trite – the Beatles – assist in bringing any adventurousness to a shameful end by embodying popular music’s morass of sterility.
Take The Work: part 1 which sources its impetus from the Rebonds of Xenakis; that ascription might be accurate, except that the Greek composer’s work does not involve electronics, whereas this score has a chugging, unchanging motorised pulse as its fundamental with some focused white noise weaving in and out of the texture. On top, Edwardes plays the dominant line on drums, a stratum that offers an opposition to the underpinning electronic support. This contrast of the regular with the disjunct works half the time except that the Whale/Smith combination want to have and eat their percussive cake, having the live percussionist offer both a cross-rhythmic Hauptstimme but one that, every so often, falls into line with the support, In other words, the piece challenges sporadically but doesn’t convince.
With The Work: part 2, the sound material is more intriguing as it involves a piece of garden slate and rocks, although how these sources are manipulated electronically – and they are – escapes me. Still, it makes for an arresting 5-and-a-half minutes, even if the time that it takes to pass by presents not much more than an invitation to surrender to Edwardes’ state of clairaudience: hearing sounds that you would not encounter in your daily life, music ‘not audible to the normal ear’, as the CD’s leaflet expresses it.
Ricketson’s Time Alone – also for vibraphone and electronics – is the disc’s lengthiest work. It forms part of an arcane collection that comprises pieces that have been ‘deliberately shielded from public life’: The Secret Noise. Well, this part of the collection is now very public and, on the face of it, we haven’t been missing much. A long chain of single vibraphone notes are sounded; about five minutes in, a faint electronic commentary enters for sonorous complementary reasons, gradually rising in importance to challenge the pointillism of the live instrument.
The effect is a good deal more intriguing than The Work, mainly because Ricketson has a finer perception of what to do with his material to keep it fresh, balanced and continuous. Yet again, it can’t be classed as a challenge for Edwardes but she projects the composer’s odd ambition for a construct that is both assimilable and arcane, public and private, with excellent control.
The odd-man-out of Eotvos’ quintet is Leafcutter, written in 2012 for vibraphone and clarinet. It functions as the composer’s tribute to leafcutter ants, specifically the females for their path to procreation and founding individual colonies. Both instruments pursue busy and continuous intersecting paths that suggest industry and a benign single-mindedness that eventually fades to inactivity when, I suppose, all the necessary work has been achieved and the ants can rest. It’s hard to find any comparisons; Eotvos’s mobile linear interplay suggests a Hindemith-like rigour but the score’s bubbling inexorability sounds like early Boulez. For all that, this creative voice is disciplined and individualistic.
The other four Eotvos works come from a collection called Counterpoint where the composer, Edwardes and three poets – Luka Lesson, Jessica L. Wilkinson, Margaret West – came together to create, their aesthetic congress resulting in a series of poems and music that, living up to the title, interweave and balance each other. Lesson is responsible for How does a Miller and No Man, Wilkinson for And I was Tired and Book of Flying; West goes unrepresented.
Each piece has its own timbre world. In How does a Miller, Edwardes employs tom toms, bass drum and electronics in a fusion of primitive and sophisticated. Long on supple patting rather than pounding, the atmosphere delineated is rather menacing. Somewhere along the way, I think Lesson recites his own lines; they are distorted intentionally and so are incomprehensible.
And I was Tired involves cymbal, waterphone, crotales and electronics and the poet’s recitation is almost clear while Eotvos relishes introducing us to the waterphone’s suggestiveness. This is a more rhythmically emphatic construct to start with before moving into impressionistic amblings for its second-part, with isolated distorted words the sole point of reference.
Back comes the vibraphone (and electronics) for Book of Flying which has no spoken text, although it was one of two poems I was able to track down. Edwardes lays on the vibraphone repeated clusters with a will and you can hear definite mimicry of the fly noted in Wilkinson’s lines. Yet the achievement is not that impressive, possibly because it seems happy in its own haiku-like stasis.
Naturally, the vibraphone and electronics feature in Lesson’s No Man, as well as the almglocken or tuned cowbells which for my generation have an unbreakable link with Mahler. Edwardes indulges in a sturdy brand of mild aggression – but you could say the same about much of Counterpoint – before Lesson speaks his four lines en clair. The latter part of the piece is a series of distortions of this spoken material. improving on the original’s flat delivery but bringing to mind how much more adventurous and daring were similar experiments like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge from over 60 years ago.
Nevertheless, this experimental music+verse exercise demonstrated an aspiration towards true creativity. The results might be uneven but Eotvos and her multi-talented interpreter give us on this CD a much-needed collection of how music might be advanced, taken outside its self-satisfied strictures and hauled into something approaching a musical landscape that builds on the past, proposing the new rather than wallowing in pointless populism.