Composer James Weeks comments that ‘I don’t want to write what I already know … It’s a question of unlearning, of being ready always to let go of what you think you know. Technique has to be re-made, or at least re-purposed, at every moment, unless you want to re-write the same piece over and over again’. A consequence is that he avoids what art historians call a ‘signature style’ – an identifying approach that allows listeners to say ‘That’s Weeks!’ after a few bars. Rejection of a signature style may be what qualifies the Romantic model of genius. But at a deep level there’s a rich artistic personality in Weeks’s work, one that takes many distinct forms.
Weeks’s PhD was supervised by Michael Finnissy, and in the last decade, he has focused on solo and small ensemble works, exploring elemental materials and processes, either left bare or built up into dense polyphonic structures. With soprano Juliet Fraser, he founded new music vocal ensemble EXAUDI in 2002. Mala Punica/Walled Garden (Winter & Winter) for eight voices and ensemble, and commissioned by EXAUDI, consists of eight settings based on the Song of Songs. The title comes from the Latin text’s references to pomegranates (‘punica granatum’). The vocal sections were written in 2008–9. In 2015, Weeks framed and divided them with instrumental movements ‘Walled Garden I’, ‘II’ and ‘III’ for string and flute trios, played by the Hortus Ensemble, named after the central movement, ‘Hortus Conclusus’ (‘Enclosed Garden’). The results are utterly beguiling – subtle, canonic pieces, haunting in their tremulous delicacy.
Signs of Occupation (Métier) is, I guess, at the looser, more experimental end of the composer’s output. It documents Weeks’s chamber music from 2010–14, focusing on looping materials, and the clash of musical sounds with field recordings of the city. The cacophony of Looping Busker Music (2013) makes for a total contrast with the delicate, intricate vocal Mala Punica. It’s a musical equivalent of ‘My seven-year-old could have done that’ – a racket that apparently might have been created by a group of primary school kids, or even the Thai Elephant Orchestra, but here performed by Vicky Wright (clarinet), Aisha Orazbayeva (violin), Tom Pauwels (guitar) and Mark Knoop (accordion). Equally contrasting are four rather subdued, minimal-sounding tracks for piano trio, three of them comprising a set; reduced fragments, looping a few or single notes, set against with field recordings of sounds heard by the composer while composing. The performers are Marcus Barcham Stevens (violin), Oliver Coates (cello) and Mark Knoop (piano). Subtle clashes in tuning help generate an ethos of eerie strangeness that demands attentive listening, gradually pulling the listener in.
The fourth piano trio, common ground (2014) is performed by Daniel Pioro (violin), Maxine Moore (viola) and Oliver Coates (cello). The title-track is named after a line from the poem ‘Approaching Cleavel Point’ by James Wilkes, which the poet reads, partly antiphonally with Andrew Sparling’s clarinet. Again, the compositional approach presents brief figures and reiterated notes that obliquely parallel the poem’s language. The solo Digger (2010), for guitar and spoken voice (Alastair Putt), forms a tribute to the heroic band of Diggers led by Gerard Winstanley, whose text this is. They occupied St George’s Hill, Weybridge in 1649, asserting the rights of ordinary people to the ‘common wealth’ – democratic ideas which, after their brief appearance in the Civil War period, were submerged again for three centuries. The political theme of the album is affirmed by Christopher Fox’s sleevenote: ‘defiance … in the face of the insidious, yet relentless, occupation of our lives by big business’.
The title-piece of Howard Skempton’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (NMC), for baritone and small ensemble, is the composer’s longest work to date. It features narrator-vocalist Roderick Williams and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The ensemble has seven instruments, often only one or two accompanying the vocalist at a time. The result is an immensely enjoyable way of experiencing this hypnotic work of Romantic Gothic; with his economical instrumentation, the composer offers a pellucid yet characterful setting – with a few cuts, towards the end. Williams’s delivery is clear and direct, at the singing end of Sprechstimme. Instrumentally, the killing of the albatross is simply stated by piano, followed immediately by strings and piano, persuasively characterising the rising sun at the start of Part II. Also featured is the purely instrumental Only the Sound Remains, inspired by Edward Thomas’s poem ‘The Mill Water’ – an eloquent and, for Skempton, richly-textured composition.
Unlike Weeks, I’d say, Skempton does have a signature style, one which he has developed. He’s the leading living representative of the Cornelius Cardew experimental school – a student of Cardew, though the politics behind his art is muted in comparison. Apparently simple materials are developed – or accumulated – to create a powerful impact. His recent, longer works for larger forces synthesise the stylistic areas of his earlier output, small in scale and almost entirely solo and duo.
Darragh Morgan’s For Violin and Electronics (Diatribe) features six pieces by living composers, all composed for the violinist, who just handles the live violin part, sometimes using ‘extended’ techniques. The compositions form a kind of dialectic around the polarities of fixed and interactive electronics. With fixed electronics, Jonty Harrison’s Some of Its Parts and Ricardo Climent’s Koorean Air require the violinist to sync perfectly with the tape part. In Harrison’s excitingly brutal-sounding composition, composer and soloist seamlessly integrate the violin into an industrial soundscape – a brilliant resolution of electro-acoustic composition’s inherent conflicts.
Scott Wilson’s luminous, incandescent Flame – sorry! but the description is accurate – lies between fixed and interactive approaches; electronics features both live/real-time processing, and pre-recorded material reacting to the violin. With Paul Wilson’s rather etiolated Trapped in Ice and Simon Emmerson’s richly expressive Stringscape, with its keening violin part, Morgan explains, ‘the electronics part in some ways follows the live violin line and reacts to it with a range of effects like granular processing’. Jonathan Nangle’s haunting Where Distant City Lights Flicker on Half-Frozen Ponds seems to evoke a motionless winter landscape, employing what Morgan calls ‘resonators … reacting to the natural harmonics of violin sonorities, often manipulated by harmonics and open strings’. It’s an affecting conclusion to an excellent album.