Last fall, when the world was told to expect a long, dark winter after an already brutal year, I decided to look for new, exciting orchestral music. It had been months since I was walled in by symphonic forces in a live setting. And if the times were to be dark, I wanted at least some music that indicated this sense of scale.
Thanks to the British label NMC Recordings, I quickly found what I was looking for in Ed Bennett’s “Freefalling”, the opening track of his October release “Psychedelia”.
For ten minutes it is proof of the truth in titling: a frenzied ride that combines queasy glissandos with rousing exclamations that are suitable for an action film montage. The same mixture of experimentalism and show business can be heard elsewhere on the album, such as in the multi-movement “Song of the Books”. I made a note of checking in more often at NMC.
In the six months since then, the label has continued to release a number of successful recordings, including this month “Nature”, the first complete collection of full-length orchestral pieces by English composer Tansy Davies. Like Bennett, Davies is not afraid of obvious debts to the cinema. some of the soaring motifs in the first sentence of their “What did we see?” could be reminiscent of John Williams’ “Star Wars” points. But the rest of their four-part suite has its own gruff lyrical identity. And the glittering, melodically fragmented Davies piano concerto that gives the album its title is another show stopper.
When I heard “Nature” alongside “This Departing Landscape,” a lush February release by Scottish composer Martin Suckling, it was clear that NMC was entering the pandemic with a strong production schedule already in place. While the label has long had a balance between young (sometimes very young) talent and an Art House label for the UK’s established avant-garde, this recent flurry of recordings for veteran names has been noticeably small. (Bennett and Davies are in their forties; Suckling will turn 40 later this year.)
In Suckling’s second track, “Release”, a feeling of patient, spectral discomfort is alive that sounds like it contains some lessons from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.
The liner notes for “This Departing Landscape” contain an encomium by Julian Anderson, an elder on the British scene. Anderson notes that Suckling studied with both American composer Martin Bresnick and British composer George Benjamin, but that his work is similar to the work of one of his teachers.
When Anderson praises Suckling’s “confusingly diverse” piano concerto, he asks: “How can the hyperactive polyrhythms of the opening part belong in the same climate as the wide landscape of the central slow movement or as the complex use of extended instrumental techniques in movement four? “
His short answer to his own question is that this music is “rich, generous, exuberant and positive” and that the “power of contrasts” appears convincing even when first heard.
Suckling’s worldliness helps make these contrasts possible. In a recent interview for the Presto Classical website, he highlighted his interest in Morton Feldman (1926-87), whose meditative sensibility also informs contemporary American composers such as Tyshawn Sorey. Of Feldman’s extraordinarily long later work, Suckling said: “Despite the size, there is an extremely touching intimacy.” He’s after something similar in his piano concerto under all this swirling variation.
There are also various references in the works of the other younger composers on the NMC list. Davies made a name for himself with chamber music works with funky bouquets of flowers, including “Neon”. She has also described her “Grind Show” as “superimposing two scenes: the foreground in a worn dance hall and the background a rainy landscape at night”.
If this eclecticism feels familiar in British contemporary music, it may be thanks to the composer Thomas Adès (50) who used a techno rhythm of four to the floor in the third movement of “Asyla” (1997). His taste goes to antique juxtapositions such as the embedding of a lullaby in the otherwise overcomplicated score of his opera “The Exterminating Angel”.
Younger artists took this as a kind of permit and walked with it. Another artist, with an April release on NMC, makes clear his guilt to multiple traditions. In Alex Paxton’s notes on his new album “Music for Bosch People”, he put it this way: “Minimal, but loads more notes like video games, but with more songs like jazz, but much more gay than old music, but more up-to-date and deliciously sweet. ”(It goes on for a while.)
It’s much more manic than Suckling’s music; it sounds like something that could come out on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. (Coincidentally, Paxton was hired to write an essay for Zorn’s ongoing “Arcana” book series.) But Suckling is a proponent of Paxton’s high-contrast soundscape, and recently wrote on Twitter, “This is the most joyful sound I have.” have heard for ages! “
However the alchemy is achieved, the results currently coming from the NMC lab are a boon to the listeners. If pandemic restrictions wear off (eventually) and American orchestras start thinking about contemporary programming, they could follow the lead of some dispersed groups like the Lost Dog New Music Ensemble in Queens and bring some of the great ensemble works by these composers across the Atlantic.