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Richard MILLS (b. 1949)
Aeolian Caprices (1990) [6:00]
Soundscapes for Percussion and Orchestra, (1983) [23:20]
Seaside Dances (1989) [23:52]
Fantastic Pantomimes (1987) [17:00]
Gerhard Mallon, flute
Anthony Camden, oboe
Paul Dean, clarinet
Neil Crellin, horn
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Richard Mills (conductor) (percussion on Soundscapes); Werner Andreas Albert (conductor on Soundscapes)
Recording location and dates not included
ABC ELOQUENCE 476 7595 [70:50]

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If you are not familiar with Richard Mills already, he is one of the world’s most well known and popular living composers. Since the 1980s the Australian has composed works for the Commonwealth Games in 1982, the Olympic Games in 2000, and numerous works of opera and symphonies performed all around the world. His music has deservedly found acceptance among the concert-going public as it tends to be both energetic and entertaining. This album takes several of his pieces presented exactly as the composer intended them. He is, after all, either the conductor or featured performer in each case.

The first, Aeolian Caprices is a vibrant work based on the Aeolian (natural minor) mode. It is an exhilarating work, showcasing the oversimplification of basic music theory that "minor keys are sad sounding". This is a work of pure joy, echoing to the more energetic parts of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Though very short, it is bursting with energy. While there is little new ground broken here, it is thoroughly enjoyable in the tradition of the neo-Romantics.

The second work, Soundscapes is a four movement piece featuring Mills on a variety of percussion instruments. Here his compositional innovations become more evident. There is a blending of the work of Steve Reich and of Rimsky-Korsakov or the young Stravinsky. The orchestra is used less as a means of conveying melodic ideas and more as a complex tonal-percussion instrument, similar to the way that Stravinsky uses the symphony in Rite of Spring. The departure is in his percussion instrumentation, including whistles, bird-calls, extensive use in the third movement of the vibraphone suggesting a mysterious nocturnal setting, or of pitched drums, tom-toms and large cowbells in the second and fourth movements. The piece, as it traverses movements, showcases a diversity of symphonic percussion that is otherwise seldom encountered. If you haven’t heard this work be assured that it is well worth your time and effort. It was apparently performed live, unlike the other pieces presented here. There is a great deal of applause at the end of the piece; the other works end in silence.

Seaside Dances is a six movement interpretation of a poem by e.e. cummings. The musical vocabulary seems to have been derived from the works of Claude Debussy. The first movement is a wistful look over the horizon with the different string sections exchanging the melody in often very complex tetrachords. It makes extensive use of bitriatic harmonies for support, lending a feeling similar to Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question, though certainly less avant-garde. The second movement suddenly shifts to a scene of childish playfulness. The harmonies are simple, the meter much more easily defined and steady, and the music takes on the nature of incidental music from the 1950s. The third and fourth movements immediately move to a more complex and beautiful musical language, reminiscent this time of Copland, as in the slower movements of Appalachian Spring. In the next, there is again an energetic vigor, though this time with a darker complexity in the harmonies. The innocent simplicity of the second movement is seemingly lost, though the youthful liveliness remains. The finale returns to the spiritual and pensive tones and complex harmonizations of the initial movement, returning us to where we began.

The final work is Fantastic Pantomimes, written for selected principals from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The musicians are intended to constitute characters in a musical pantomime, with the Kabuki Theater as an inspiration. The featured wind players are required to be spatially removed from each other and the orchestra, placed around the orchestra hall during the performance. Again Mills makes distinctive use of percussion, here deriving much of his metric shifting and percussion voicing from traditional Japanese drum music. The work is divided into two sections, the first being a rapid series of thematic "punctuation points", the second being a slow chorale for strings interspersed with melodic material from the first seven minutes.

There are points where the music of Mills seems very contrived. Although he has a wide variety of influences, I rarely found myself truly stimulated by this album. He seems to find his voice largely through those who came before him. On the other hand, this is no different than the complaint that one hears when jazz fans compare Wynton Marsalis to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, or rock fans compare Eddie Van Halen to Jimi Hendrix. There is no doubt that the earlier musicians are more innovative, as they are truly inventing musical vocabularies. There is little argument that the later musicians are superior technically, as they are able to perfect techniques that the innovators discovered. Similarly Mills has been given a legacy that he is in many ways perfecting. While it must be said that the sounds of his music are often derivative, Mills’ music is quite good and never tedious. It is hard to fault someone for showing their influences, especially when they have evidently attempted to find so many of them.

The liner notes also are quite good, as they contain both a musicological examination of Mills’ career to date and a collection of notes by Mills about the pieces. The notes of what lines from the poem are employed at various points of Seaside Dances do a commendable job of elucidating the work. They also explain visual portions of the Soundscapes that are impossible to convey through a purely audio medium, and the reasons for the unconventional instrumentation in Fantastic Pantomimes. I wish that this disc had been made available in 5.1 surround sound for the last work, where it would have better emulated the desired musical experience. That does not detract from the performance however, which was perhaps the best on this album.

If you are someone that is interested in the future of symphonic music, the music of Richard Mills is certainly one place that should be explored. This album is well recorded and produced. The music is convincingly composed and performed. This is the type of new music that most concert-attendees would be likely to enjoy and Mills is among the better popular composers in the world today. If you have not yet experienced his music, this is probably as good a place as any to start.

Patrick Gary

see also review by Gary Higginson

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