Edward Cowie (b. 1943)
Streams and Particles
Particle Partita (2012)
Basho Meditations (2019)
Stream and Variations (2019)
Kandinsky’s Oboe (2009)
MÉTIER MSV28612 
I am no expert on particle physics, the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, Wiltshire limnology or Kandinsky, so I am beholden to the exceptional liner notes for aiding my understanding of this music. I agree with Edward Cowie: “Music ought, of course, speak for itself.” But he goes on to say: “my use of titles is to try to at least give a listener some terms of reference […] Each of these titled pieces has a specific inspirational core. The evocations that these inspirational responses seek to share with a listener are intended to take the listener to either a sense-of-place or even something more personal and that's the stimulation of experiences the listener might already have of the phenomena that have inspired each of my pieces.” I wonder if they always help.
Particle Partita for two violins was commissioned by Professor Brian Foster FRS, an experimental physicist from the University of Oxford. Cowie explains: “Each movement is inspired by key and epic discoveries about atoms and parts-of-atoms (sub-atomic particles), from The Heraclitus [should this be Democritus?] Question postulated in the mid-4th century BC in Greece, and through to the postulate Higgs Boson and beyond.” Now that does not really help me too much: I only managed to scrape A Level Physics at my second attempt. Yet I can just about manage to gain an idea of what is going on musically from a mental picture of an atomic particle that “curves through time and space – that spins and coils – that collides and refracts – that is sometimes simple as well as complex - that moves at different speeds and directions – that has different elemental substance”. One interesting formal device is that the soloists act in tandem, like a relay race, so their contrapuntal interaction is limited. The collaboration increases as the Partita progresses. Overall, it is a sonically interesting work, very well performed. I guess I see it as an essay in dialogue, rather than a debate on a scientific thesis.
With the Basho Meditations, I am on safer ground. Edward Cowie has used eight of the notable 17th century Japanese poet’s haiku as inspiration for this work for guitar duo. The classical Japanese haiku is an unrhymed verse with three phrases, typically of five, seven and five syllables. It often has a seasonal or landscape reference. I suggest the listener read the English translations, bear them in mind, but do not try to look for a detailed programme in the music. These are lovely meditations, with some gorgeous and varied sounds. There is even a touch of flamenco, surely a million miles away from Bashō’s world.
Stream and Variations is a commission of the Julian Bream Trust. Bream’s words to Cowie tell all that is needed to understand its genesis: “I'm an old man now […] and I thought I'd like music that connects with a part of my life that has sustained and nourished me for decades – and that is my living in a beautiful house in Wiltshire, not far from the little River Sem, where my dog (Django) and me used to go so often on healing and soothing walks. […] I'd remembered some of your earlier landscape pieces and a close friend of mine confirmed that you were the ideal composer for the job.”
Cowie writes that he walked along the same paths. One thing he noticed about the river’s progress were two distinct aspects of the stream: “there were pools of much slower and limpid water, sometimes gently twisting into groups of eddies or spirals, but often with scarcely any real and perceptible dynamic movement. But these were always preceded and succeeded by ‘runs’ of narrower stream in which the water tumbled, buckled, coiled and folded in rapid and everchanging relationships with each other”.
Do note “twisting,” “eddies,” “spirals,” “coiled” and “folded.” These terms could well apply to photographs of particle collisions and to [some] drawings by Wassily Kandinsky. To me, the resulting theme and variations mirror these natural phenomena. Each variation is either “pool” or “run” successively. Knowing this background allows the listener to come to terms with this often magical “water music”. Add the topographical and emotional associations suggested by Julian Bream’s walks beside this stream, and we have a perfect landscape piece too.
To understand the background of Kandinsky for guitar quartet, we need to look at a bit of art theory. Kandinsky’s idea was that “Points,” “Line” and “Planes” are “the three basic structural and dynamic paradigms of not only the cosmos and nature but also of music and the visual arts”. The Point is the beginning of all things, the Line is in effect a moving Point, and a Plane represent multiple Lines, producing a composition. (That is what I think…) In his writings, Kandinsky reveals how “geometrical, physical, aesthetic, and spiritual concepts coexist naturally”. Just how Cowie has used this theory and applied it to his music is a matter for future research. For me, it succeeds as an abstract work, without the intellectual underpinning. The different instruments – a terz guitar, regular guitars and a bass guitar – add to the huge range of colours in this piece.
Kandinsky’s Oboe was a commission from the present soloist Christopher Redgate. It is constructed as a triptych. The three sections are once again Points, Lines and Planes, highlighting the same theory. Its effect is much more avant-garde than the other works’ here. Extended techniques include ear-piercingly high notes, breathing, sneezing, Klingon-like vocalisations, tappings and clickings. It is certainly not relaxing in any way. Whatever the listener feels about this piece, it is highly virtuosic and clearly challenging to perform. Not, however, my favourite number here.
The liner notes are essential reading unless the listener just wants to allow the music to wash over them. The entire booklet is a masterclass of design. The composer gives a brief overview of the works. There follows a detailed discussion of each work, which places it in context and gives the listener a handle for getting to grips with it. The texts of Bashō’s haiku are included. An additional valuable resource are the performers’ comments. Peter Sheppard Skærved talks about the Particle Partita. Hugh Millington and Saki Kato discuss aspects of the guitar music. Christopher Redgate majors on Kandinsky’s Oboe. Thorough biographies of the soloists and Edward Cowie are included. Of considerable interest are the illustrations. They include subatomic particle collisions recorded at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), a sketch by Kandinsky and pen and ink drawings of the little River Sem. Two examples of Cowie’s pre-compositional graphics for Streams and Variations and Particle Partita are given: these are major works of art. The haunting CD cover painting, Stream Partita, is by the composer’s wife, Heather Cowie.
All the performances are top of the range. The recording is perfect. I enjoyed most of the works on this disc. Whatever the theoretical underpinnings are, the majority can be enjoyed abstractly: after all, that is what Kandinsky was all about.
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin)
Miyabi Duo: Hugh Millington (guitar), Saki Kato (guitar)
Stream and Variations
Saki Kato (guitar)
Spectrum Guitar Quartet: Hugh Millington (terz guitar), Saki Kato (guitar), James Girling (guitar), Bradley Johnson (bass guitar)
Christopher Redgate (oboe)
15 January 2019, St Michael’s Highgate, London, UK
10-12 August 2021, Silverdale Institute Hall, Silverdale, Lancashire, UK
16 February 2016, St John the Evangelist, Oxford, UK
Published: November 24, 2022