Retrospective, but on the move

UNCOVERED GROUND

Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MD 3456

The dominating sounds in this collection of music come from the clarinets of Jason Noble. This musician appears in the first and last pieces recorded; a pity that I know nothing about him or his work but at the end he might just as well be an old friend, since his voices shine out in 8 out of the 10 tracks. Still, I don’t know anything of Felicity Wilcox’s music either, possibly because she has spent much of her creative life so far connected to film and theatre and is also linked to Sydney’s musical life and performing artists. Mind you, such a classification is based pretty much on this recording and the biographical details supplied in its accompanying leaflet; as well, I’ve not encountered her name on Melbourne programs or the little I’ve seen of those in Brisbane.

Her review of her own chamber music begins with People of this Place, a construct for solo bass clarinet that uses many sound-production techniques that became current in the 1960s. Wilcox has an affinity with and respect for the Aboriginal people of this country and parts of this piece resemble corroboree music as well as suggesting the landscape of the continent’s interior – motionless, remote, unadorned – as at the opening when the blown overtones suggest the didjeridu. In fact, the ‘worked-out’ pieces of the work have less interest than these colourful segments. Still, you can see how Wilcox is attempting to manage two separate systems of music-making and certain passages are tellingly effective – but mainly because the Aboriginal element predominates, as at about the 3’30” to 4’40” segment.

The CD’s title work constitutes another kind of fusion – no, that’s not the right word but it’s as close as this limited brain can get. The ground is a bass that Wilcox supplies herself but it’s not heard in its pristine form until near the end – rather like Britten’s lute piece Nocturnal. A double commission from the Sydney ensembles Offspring and Ironwood, its instrumentation is mixed: three Baroque strings from the latter group and violin, flutes, bass clarinet, percussion and piano from the contemporary experts. Wilcox works through juxtapositions of orthodox and adventurous, the work’s body a series of duets – modern and Baroque violins (Liisa Pallandi and Matthew Greco), viola and alto flute (Nicole Forsyth and Lamorna Nightingale), bass clarinet and cello (Noble and Daniel Yeadon), with prepared and normal piano (Benjamin Kopp) occupying the same sound-space; all the while, Offspring founder Claire Edwardes generating a percussion commentary. Mind you, it’s not as compartmentalised as this sounds with enough subsidiary action going on to disrupt any suggestions of a purely binary sound-spectrum.

The final statement – for the three Ironwood strings, I think (no vibrato) – is remarkably well achieved, rising smoothly out of the angular processes that come before. You’d need a full score to work out how Wilcox achieves her ends; after several hearings, you are left admiring a rich tapestry rooted in a baroque language from the first bars but which moves rapidly to a contemporary sound-field and back again. For those of us who have doubts about some hybrid sitting uncomfortably on a fence, or leaping awkwardly backwards and forwards across it, Uncovered Ground impresses for its lucid transitions. As well, the composer is blessed with sympathetic interpreters, notably in those sinewy duets.

Following this major score, we embark on the first of four (five?) tracks from Gouttes d’un sang etranger, Wilcox’s exercises in metamorphosis on parts of Marais’ Suitte d’un gout etranger. My first problem is that Wilcox’s initial piece is called Tambourin, yet that name is missing from the Marais collection of 33 pieces; I’ve tried several CDs and scores but this particular piece keeps its mysteries. In Wilcox’s novel format, Noble and Yeadon collaborate although the cellist has little to do but provide an octave drone on D while the woodwind plays a discernible. four-square melody with flights into melismata. All smoothly accomplished, sophisticatedly brooding and hence the complete opposite to any other tambourin I’ve come across.

A more experimental piece comes next with Le Tourbillon (electronic interlude). Here, Wilcox takes the initial version of her Marais reworking (No. 10 in the original suite) – a duet for viola da gamba (Anthea Cottee) and tenor saxophone (Nathan Henshaw) – and reverses it, with extra processing thrown into the mix. Not much happens beyond a gentle rumbling on several levels. It’s suggestive of Atmospheres but there’s only one. Immediately following is a clear (i.e. non-electronic and played forward) version of Wilcox/Marais’ Le Tourbillon, this time for clarinet (Noble) and baroque cello (Yeadon) where the performers oscillate in the spotlight; sometimes producing clear-cut Marais, more often following Wilcox’s processing of the original whirlwind musical imagery. Both Tourbillon constructs are brief and, while avoiding the pit of whimsical obscurity, are hard not to take at face value as diverting bagatelles.

The longest track on this CD, Vivre sa vie, composer’s cut, is a re-appraisal of Godard‘s 1962 film which was scored by Michel Legrand. Its 12 scenes provide Wilcox with a rough framework, inside which she gives the film’s heroine, Nana Kleinfrankenheim, a voice through Nightingale’s alto flute while Nana’s men – Paul, Raoul, the philosopher, the young man – all speak in the scenario through the bass clarinet (Noble). As well, Edwardes manages a percussion part, Kopp a subtle keyboard contribution. Now Wilcox makes it clear that this accompaniment to a film is a shorter effort than that of Legrand; Godard’s film is 105 minutes long, Wilcox’s suite 15′ 32″. However, I’m sure that a familiarity with Vivre sa vie would help immeasurably in understanding the music’s movement. But what if you’re not prepared to put in the time, no matter how worthy the exercise? It’s a conundrum at least as old as Alexander Nevsky; Prokofiev’s score is a masterpiece of sound painting against which the Eisenstein film can strike you as unnecessary, e.g. the Battle on the Ice.

You’d be engaging in a frustrating exercise if you focus on Wilcox’s product as a strict parallel to Godard’s twelve scenes-with-prefaces. For one thing, this new begleitungsmusik appears to begin with the film’s third scene where the heroine attends a screening of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; Wilcox uses her own slow hymn-suggestive sequence later in her collection. Still, it could be a game for Godard aficionados in trying to match various musical episodes to the film’s narrative; both are episodic and structurally discrete (or so I gather from descriptions of Vivre sa vie). To its credit, the music walks a fine line in mood construction, and the identification game would probably be easier for aficionados when taking into account Wilcox’s efforts to mimic the cadences of the film’s dialogue in her flute/clarinet duets/exchanges.

After this substantial interlude, we rejoin the Marais experiment with La Reveuse, No. 28 in the Suitte but here transformed electronically into La Reveuse – Coda in which Henshaw’s tenor saxophone performance of Wilcox’s mutation is played backwards, with some pedal-work from Cottee’s gamba; then the last third of the piece is given over to Noble playing solo the Marais piece’s coda (did it have one?) straight – well, as straight as Wilcox has contrived it. As with the former electronic effort (Track 4), the results are softly undulating, deliberately non-specific nd atmospherically dour, this last also to be found in Noble’s single line contribution.

SON-ombra, Wilcox’s String Quartet No. 1, is a two-movement score; its first part is to do with sound, the second moves into the shadows – as you might have predicted. Put in simple terms, the movements offer direct speaking, then inferences and shadows. OK: here we get the solid stuff from an ensemble I’ve not come across before: the Sydney Art Quartet comprising violins Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba and Anna Albert, viola Andrew Jezek, cello/founder James Beck. I know the first of these musicians from the times he has put in at the Australian National Academy of Music, then with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and, more recently, the Flinders Quartet; the other three quartet members are new names to me. Across the work’s duration, you hear a good many sound-production exercises put into effect in a vocabulary that is assertive and contemporary, even if the employment of glissandi gets a touch predictable. It’s above all a music of effects, the players able to encourage their inner taste for expressive hyperbole but not at the expense of sense.

Alone among the performances on this CD, this track is a live performance, recorded at Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in late February 2018. Does the piece contribute to the historical development of the string quartet as a compositional entity? You can’t really judge by one movement alone but these SON pages offer reassurance of intent in their dogged pursuit of the recherche with an infectious and energetic drive accompanied by frequent success in maintaining attention by several unexpected strokes.

There’s a reversion to the Marais connection with Fragments I-IV which serve as side-dishes in the progress of Wilcox’s Gouttes. Slight scraps, gleaned from the French composer’s work, are shared between Noble and Yeadon but modulated and transmuted by Wilcox, the third of these electronic manipulations after Le Tourbillon (electronic interlude) and La Reveuse – Coda. My limited research facilities inform me that this piece was originally written for gamba (Cottee) and soprano saxophone (Henshaw); indeed, these two musicians are acknowledged in the CD’s booklet as participants in the ‘electronic section’ of this track. To my ears, their work is undetectably fused with the two live performers, except towards the end of the sequence where the textural manipulation becomes blatant. In their original shape, each Fragment lasts 3 minutes; this compendium of the four stretches to about 2/3rds of that length. In spite of expectations – of disparate flimsies, I suppose – the total effect is smooth and even, ephemeral rather than confrontationally gnomic.

To end, Wilcox presents Falling, the second movement of her variable trio Snow. In this performance we hear Noble and cellist Freya Schack-Arnott, both of whom assisted at the complete work’s 2016 premiere; the pianist here is Wilcox herself. What is falling is obvious, and it does so with mesmerising effect as the three instruments follow a repetitious sequence that comes close to a chaconne. The effect is placid enough, highly predictable after the first 30 seconds with only a short-lived mini-acceleration in mid-stream to brighten the path (F minor?) of this painless but bland essay.

This disc displays the work of a talented composer, one happy to operate in a generally well-trodden harmonic and melodic framework – with exceptions where a more ambitious and contemporary prospect is in plain view. What surprises me most is that the various tracks are not representative of the composer’s latest products; the Gouttes date from 2014, Uncovered Ground from 2015, People of this Place and Falling from 2016, Vivre sa vie from 2017 and the string quartet movement – the CD’s most original sequence – was written in 2018. This last shows Wilcox in a very different light to nearly everything else to be heard here and I, for one, would welcome more of the adventurous spirit promised in such material.

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