> MARTLAND Horses of Instruction [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Steve MARTLAND (b.1959)
Horses of Instruction (1994)
Kick (1996)
Beat the Retreat (1995)
Mr.Anderson’s Pavane (1994)
Principia (1989)
Thistyle of Scotland (1996)
Eternal Delight (1997)
Re-Mix (1986)
Terminal (1998)

The Steve Martland Band – James Pearson, piano, Malcolm Moore, bass guitar, Simon Pearson, Drums, Tim Maple, electric/acoustic guitar, Peter Whyman, alto/soprano saxophone, Tim Holmes, tenor/soprano saxophone, Chris Caldwell, baritone saxophone, Lee Butler, trumpet/flügel horn/ piccolo trumpet, Mike Kearsey, trombone, Colin Currie, marimba, Chris Tombing, violin
Recorded 21st-23rd November 2000, Angel Studios London
BLACK BOX BBM1033 [70:06]


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Steve Martland is one of the more interesting characters around the current UK music scene. He stands apart from more ‘establishment’ figures like Adès or Turnage, with their comparatively conventional output, and instead gives us something which hovers disconcertingly between Minimalism, Jazz and Rock – and yet is none of those. His music, it seems to me, has a lot in common with figures such as Louis Andriessen in Holland, or Michael Torke in the US, both as hard to classify as Martland himself.

This CD gives an extremely good impression of his output. It also celebrates the brilliance of the ‘band’ that he has put together to perform his and others’ music. It mixes brass and saxophones with percussion, guitars and keyboard, with the occasional telling contribution from the violin of Chris Tombing.

Horses of Instruction, the first track, is both the longest and one of the most complex numbers here. It’s also probably the most ‘minimalist’ in that it owes much to the chugging rhythms and tuned percussion of Steve Reich. But Martland allows the texture, tempo and rhythm to change enough to avoid the ennui that can descend during even the most artful piece of Reich, and which is never far away (for me at least) in any piece of, for example, Michael Nyman. The title, by the way, comes from William Blake, who has been a recurring source of inspiration for Martland.

Track 2, Kick, is quite different, and shows him using folk influences. Chris Tombing is featured, presenting an anonymous folk fiddle melody from the 17th century. After a more fragmented, rock influenced middle section, the folk melody returns in a wild transformation for the whole band – bracing!

I suggested Martland was not an ‘establishment’ figure; well this is true, yet he does get commissions from that bastion of the musical establishment, the BBC. (I suppose that it’s a tribute to Martland that he presents a just about equally awkward problem for Radio 3 and Classic FM!). Such was the origin of the piece on track 3, Beat the Retreat, for which he seizes on a bass line by Purcell, and effectively uses it as a ‘ground’. What he comes up with, though, is unlike any Chaconne or Passacaglia I’d ever heard. It’s a sign of real creative talent to be able to re-invent a traditional form in such a diverting way. Peter Maxwell Davies did something a little similar in Farewell to Stromness, but the delicious bluesy element in the harmony gives this music a distinctive flavour.

After the fairly frenetic quality of these first three tracks, the gently elegiac character of Mr. Anderson’s Pavane (written as a homage to the late Lindsay Anderson, film director) comes as a welcome contrast. Principia, track 5, is probably Martland’s most familiar work, having been used by Radio 3 as the title music for the programme ‘The Music Machine’. Thistle of Scotland, the shortest piece on the CD, has much in common with Kick, taking a Scottish folk melody as its basis.

Eternal Delight is another Blake reference ("Energy is Eternal Delight"), and is probably the most structurally complex piece here. The composer even uses the word ‘symphonic’ in his booklet notes, which is a bit of a surprise! But he’s right – there is a symphonic feel to the way the material is developed and eventually recapitulated in a summative way.

The programme is completed by the hilariously bustling Re-Mix, based on a repeated three-note riff or ostinato, and Terminal, originally conceived as a collaboration between Martland and the rock band ‘Spiritualised’. This is an exciting and provocative CD; as Martland suggests in his booklet notes, the performers have managed to reproduce in the studio the manic energy that characterises their concert appearances, which is quite an achievement – great fun and well worth a hearing, even if you object to Martland’s dress(or undress) sense.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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