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.
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.