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Benedict MASON (b. 1955)
felt/ebb/thus/brink/here/array/telling (2001)
Ensemble Modern/Franck Ollu
rec. live, Donaueschinger Musiktage, October 2004
COL LEGNO WWE 1SACD 20604 [71:44]


Mason’s quite beautiful orchestral work Lighthouses of England and Wales (1987), once available on Collins Classics 20042 (and now resurfaced on NMC), is probably the first piece of his that received exposure, and quite deservedly so. This is a brilliantly scored successful orchestral tone poem, cast in a decidedly modern, though very accessible idiom. Since then, Mason has composed a sizeable body of work in many genres that reveal a highly personal, if at times idiosyncratic sound-world. Some of his works have made their way onto disc, e.g. his String Quartet No.1 (1987), Double Concerto (1989 – horn, trombone and ensemble) and Self-referential Songs and Realistic Virelais (1990 – soprano and ensemble), all three on Bridge BCD 9045 - probably still available.

felt/ebb/thus/brink/here/array/telling, completed in 2001, was written especially for the Baar-Sporthalle in Donaueschingen, and is part of Mason’s Music for Concert Halls series started in 1993. This series “explores the relationship of sound to architectural space”. In an interview printed in the insert notes and from which I will unashamedly borrow, the composer states that these works are conceived as ‘concert installations’ except that the audience take up their normal seating, and importantly the art ‘object’ is live and acoustic, and “not the old thing of loudspeaker-based sound installation”. Although these pieces were originally conceived with specific venues in mind, they can be performed in any hall taking every chosen hall’s idiosyncrasies and ‘specialness’ (sic) into account for the realisation of the score. These pieces are about acoustic phenomena within a given space, and the way a sound reacts to distance, movement, direction and resonance in real or illusory use. So, the performance takes place within the main auditorium, and in the alternative locations of foyers, corridors, lefts, stairwells, tuning room as well as the external spaces of the roof and even adjacent parks, waterways and roads, which makes most of these pieces virtually unrecordable. Moreover, there is nearly always a specifically designed extra-musical or visual aspect, such as the movement of musicians, film projection, video screen and lighting within the building. The work under review, subtitled “visual : aural : acoustical : sculptural music” is no exception. It is scored for 48 players who play either their own instruments or instruments developed by the composer. Since the players have to move in and out of the hall, and change place during the performance, co-ordination is done by using acoustic signals (such as click tracks). The actual performance is therefore unconducted, although Mason emphasises the important part played by the conductor during rehearsals. The titles of the twelve parts that make up the piece give some indication as to what to expect in each movement, although we may not always be left any the wiser: “No.1 for harmonics and helmholtz resonators” (i do not know what a helmholtz resonator is, I am afraid) or “No.8 for metal tubes with resonance holes” or “No.11 for gongs drums and cane” (in which I think to hear the sound of kazoos, but I may be wrong).

What of the music? It generally is very soft and moves slowly as if in a ritual. The ear is constantly intrigued by unusual sonorities, because one never knows exactly what is being played (is it live sound or processed sound?); but the result of it all is either quite fascinating or frankly boring according to one’s frame of mind. I have been quite impressed by the richly varied sound-world conjured by the composer. I never had the impression of going through some sonic experiment, but rather through a seriously conceived piece of music exploring an extraordinary realm full of arresting sounds and gestures. This, however, is music that must be listened to without any prejudice. One must forget one’s listening habits and immerse oneself in a completely new aural universe. I listened to this disc on a normal CD player; I suppose something may be gained from listening to it in SACD, since there are important spatial effects going on in the music. That said, the music makes its points whichever way one listens to it.

The live recording and performance are very fine; the overall presentation likewise. Nevertheless, considering its very unusual nature I would have welcomed more factual information concerning the instruments involved, and the way the music is actually played. What we have instead, is a quite interesting, but at times obscure interview with the composer.

In short, this is a thought-provoking release of a work that is quite unlike anything else one may be used to. Ultimately this is a fascinating sonic experience that repays repeated hearings, but be prepared for something quite unusual.

Hubert Culot






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