Unabashed, continuous sweetness


Michelle Nelson

Move Records MCD 621

Well-known guitarist Nelson presents 22 tracks on her latest CD. The first three are, in terms of length, the most substantial, hovering around the 4-minute mark. The rest tend to be slight, particularly her Eight Bagatelles for recorder (Will Hardy) and guitar which average out to about 1′ 30″. Yet there can be quality in brevity, as Webern is our perennial witness. But then, Nelson is not weaving skeletal miracles of organization but vignettes that soothe your frazzled receptors into calm territory with a quiet amiability. And that intention is not to be disdained in times that hold unpleasant surprises and uncertainties around every press conference.

The composer’s bagatelles are surrounded by an Isolation Suite for solo guitar, four movements each side. As its title suggests to most Melbournians, the work gives various musical reflections on aspects of the First Great Lockdown of 2020; well, it wasn’t that impressive as it lasted a matter of weeks rather than the months that this year’s venture reached. But there’s more. Those first tracks comprise Two pieces for Harp and Guitar, with Megan Reeve supporting Nelson; as well, Nelson plays an isolated solo, La despedida, which is the CD’s longest work at 4’10”. Finally, Nelson branches out to offer Short & SweetThree Pieces for Concert Ukulele.

We start with the harp/guitar duets, beginning with Falling Ashes which is an excellent example of combining timbres to the point where their interweaving comes close to indecipherable. Starting with a falling arpeggio shape, the piece sort of inverts this motif, torquing it into mild transformations but eschewing the temptation to revert back to it verbatim. A gentle exercise all round, its 4/4 metre enjoying some slight compression in its latter pages. Falling Ashes‘ companion is Floating Free, which begins with some scene-setting of water sounds; here, the previous piece’s falling pattern is inverted – at least, until the harp enters, the guitar restricted for a long time to Alberti-type supporting groups while the partner instrument sets all the running with the upper line and some syncopation to add interest to its single-note pointillism. The water noises permeate the piece at various stages: you might be floating but this body of water is not to be trusted, it seems to me.

The lengthy Farewell guitar solo follows. Here is your classic rondo form – ABACA+coda – and a deftly couched main theme/melody to carry it all along. As you’d anticipate from its Spanish title, the work reflects a world of guitar salon music, but this piece has a deft, no-nonsense attitude to its leave-taking: the major key (D? I’m losing any capacity to determine tonality from open strings) dominates and both interludes don’t venture too far away, so that the chief tune’s return becomes more of a welcome than a goodbye. For all that, Nelson has a gentle if predictable lyricism to her compositional language that soothes, never confronts.

She then switches to the ukulele for three pieces: Poco allegro: espressivo e rubato, Vivace: quasi waltz style, and Moderato : delicato e rubato. Thanks to these descriptive titles, there’s mot much further to say. The first is a gentle piece operating on two levels – a regular, plucked (what did you expect, idiot?) bass and a top tremolo line that doesn’t have much vertical motion to it. In the waltz – a not-too-distant cousin to similar exercises by Sculthorpe and Michael Easton – the triple rhythm is regularly displaced by a 5-count bar but the work operates on a sort of three-layered system, the top lines outlining the melody in euphonious thirds. The final constituent of this brief collection is a numbingly repetitious offering in which each bar appears to begin with a triplet before the bar’s other three quavers emerge in regular tempo; and when I say ‘regular’, I mean ‘unchanging’. Well, that’s not exactly true as a modicum of modulation takes place, but the rhythmic pattern impresses as inexorable. The composer refers to using the guitar’s ‘ligado’ technique which, as far as I can hear, refers to the opening triplet being played in one stroke/attack. Or maybe I’ve missed the point entirely. Whatever the case, this is the longest of the three ukulele pieces and the least interesting in its material.

Nelson returns to the guitar for her salute to COVID – the first half of it, anyway. Each section has a suggestive title, the first rather oddly named Isolationist, which suggests a political attitude to me, rather than the state of being alone, which is Nelson’s intention. It’s a mainly one-line meander with a catchy opening motif; it could suggest the state of emotional/intellectual solitude to a suggestible listener. Quietude follows, proposing the silence of Melbourne’s physical world during a severe shutdown. Here again, the movement is single-note, operating on two levels with an upper melody followed by a lower arpeggio support that takes on a night-following-day regularity. With Steel Grey, the accent changes to ennui and depression as the days of solitariness creep ever onward. This piece starts boldly enough but soon settles into a tweaking of cells that suggest the unvarying nature of each unwelcome day and even a concluding tierce does little to raise the emotional stakes. A change of scene coms in a flowing Sunset Reflection which celebrates an uplifting, unexpected sight in a page (or half a page) of mild optimism; this is also the shortest element in the suite so far.

After the Eight Bagatelles, the suite resumes through Rising Tension which has two elements: a quick minor 2nd interval, time-honoured for suggesting unrest or a Disturbance in the Force; and a set of chords where the treble seems to stay the same but the lower harmonies change slightly, signifying the physical realization of social discord – a marvel of prescience, considering the demonstrations that have hit our capital cities on recent weekends when the disaffected have had to find some way to flesh out their new – and clearly undeserved – freedoms. Following this unconscious imagery connected to the recent Storming of the Winter Palace, we have Anamnesis working as a kind of curative element where a calm and predictable melody is played with consoling charm, calculated to revive the drooping spirit. Miller’s mental odyssey then turns to the concept of weathering the months of durance vile imposed by Daniel Andrews; Endure revolves around appoggiatura which eventually seems to appear in every beat of a slow march that rises and fades away like Mussorgsky’s Bydlo. If anything, this piece emphasizes the numbing repetition of time in universally enforced quarantine. Finally, we reach the CD’s title track which observes the hiatus between the southern capital’s two lockdowns and the advent of spring, the piece’s forward movement packed with promise in a major mode, leading from lower reaches to higher ones, the suite concluding with an alternation between major and minor. It’s as though happy days may be here again but they can be deleted from your expectations bank all too easily.

Sitting in the middle of these Melbourne mediations, the Bagatelles are excellent examples of easy-going duets; for instance, the first one, Allegro, has the recorder play the tune twice, then a deviation, and a return; pleasant and piquant without any affectations. More of the same comes with Poco allegro where the sequences are unsurprising, apart from some interpolations from Hardy, and an unexpected coda that cuts across the piece’s quietly busy ambience. Giocoso is a light jig with the recorder still maintaining top-dog status, the part animated by some delayed entries and a smidgeon of syncopation. This up-beat, naive mode continues with Poco allegro e cantabile, Nelson sustaining a steady single-note pulse throughout while the recorder follows the optimistic path set by a signature upward 4th leap.

The composer contributes a single-note 6/8 bass support in Piacevole which lives up to its name – not so much for the regular guitar underpinning but more the follow-your-nose aspect of Hardy’s contribution which every so often sounds improvised; it isn’t, but the later melodic twists are carried out with telling individuality. In fact, this musician’s essays at glissando spice up a pretty unconvincing Poco adagio in which the modulations – such as they are – don’t convince because of a sort of tentativeness that was not quite as obvious in the preceding movement . Yet again, the guitar’s role is a subservient one. A straight ternary shape provides the framework for Animato, another jolly jig which acquires some folksy quality with the occasional first-beat crushed 2nd from the guitar and an opening melodic gambit that suggests Pancakes, Lisela. Finally, another gentle if unadventurous melody arrives in Allegro e sempre legato which reinforces the characteristics of this collection: a clear-singing melody line that doesn’t move far outside its original scale range, a simple accompaniment that draws little attention to itself, an even dynamic level without any surprises, and a four-square structure as reassuring as that of Grieg.

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