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Stephen GOSS (b. 1964)
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (2005) [24.35] (1)
Oxen of the Sun (2003/4) [17.30] (2)
An Ideal Insomnia (2002) [12.09] (3)
Park of Idols (2005) [11.40] (4)
Gemini: (Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet); Caroline Balding (violin); Robin Michael (cello); Julian Jacobson (piano)) (1); Jonathan Leathwood (guitars) (2); Graham Caskie (piano) (3); Leonid Gorkhov (cello) (4); Richard Hand (guitar) (4)
rec. Studio 1, Performing Arts Technology Studios, University of Surrey, 21 March 2005, 8 January 2006; St. Andrews Church, Toddington, 12 July 2005

Stephen Goss studied composition with Robert Saxton, Edward Gregson, Peter Dickinson and Anthony Payne. With mentors as varied and distinguished as this, it should come as no surprise to find that Goss, now Head of Composition at Surrey University, has developed a number of academic programmes which reflect his interests in pluralism, Post-Modernism, improvisation, performance studies and the late music of Beethoven.

These interests reflect the music that Goss has written, inspired by Charles Jenck’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Goss’s piece, "The Garden of Cosmic Speculation" was first performed in March 2005 at the University of Surrey as part of the Guildford Festival. The performers were members of Gemini, who champion it on this new disc.

In Jenck’s Garden, a series of visual metaphors are used to enable the visitor to contemplate certain fundamental aspects of the universe. But the garden is not dull; it is visually stimulating and full of a sense of fun and excitement.

Goss’s piece similarly mixes genres and styles, seriousness and fun. Quotes, references and ciphers litter the score, sometimes these are obvious and sometimes less so. This is a piece that responds to repeated listening. For instance, in the gardens The Snail Mound is a large spiral earthwork based on the Fibonacci sequence. Goss transforms this into music that uses the Fibonacci relationships whilst referring to Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and two pieces by Beethoven. In The Nonsense, which is named after a folly in the garden, there is a half quote from ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, plus an ending which refers to the day a tree came crashing through the roof of the folly.

It is a tribute to Goss’s skill and the skill of the players that the results sound natural and obvious, never overly contrived. This is chamber music of rare skill and played by a very fine ensemble. Gemini commissioned the piece as a companion to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Goss makes references to Messiaen’s harmonies and textures.

Whilst Goss’s language is chromatic and dissonant, it is extremely expressive and his textures are frequently very open. This is music which sounds and feels as if it is coming from the open spaces of a garden - or perhaps I am getting too fanciful.

The concrete nature of the inspiration of the piece, the short duration and varied nature of the movements mean that this is very definitely a piece which can be sample by those who shy away from contemporary music. But at the same time Goss never talks down; he never confuses melodic fecundity with real inspiration.

As a guitarist, Stephen Goss has won a number of prizes and awards. So it is understandable that guitarist Jonathan Leathwood turned to Goss when he wanted a piece for six-string and ten-string guitars. In concert Leathwood played both types of guitar and had been experimenting with playing both guitars simultaneously, by placing the six-string guitar on a table in front of him whilst holding the 10-string one normally.

The resulting piece, Oxen of the Sun, is a fascinating study in timbres and textures; at times you find it difficult to believe there was only one player and just two instruments. With 16 strings in total available, Goss thought about Orpheus’s lyre and wrote a piece which utilises all 16 open strings. He surrounds this with various explorations of stories from Ovid and Homer, by way of James Joyce (‘Ulysses’) and Benjamin Britten (‘Metamorphoses after Ovid’). The title comes from Chapter 11 of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.

Leathwood sounds impressively in control of his material and the piece is by turns enchanting, mysterious and frustratingly evanescent. At times I had to turn the volume up to pick out the details, but that might be the fault of my headphones. I would love to hear the piece live - in a very quiet concert hall.

An ideal insomnia picks up on the idea of night music, but Goss’s Night Music movement is a grotesque and frantic phantasmagoria, very different from the Bartókian night musics. The piece is written for piano, expertly played on the disc by Graham Caskie. The second movement, Rockaby, is a lullaby which manages to quote from Britten and Turnage. The Hatter references both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and that superb Satie song, ‘Le Chapelier’, setting a poem by Rene Chalupt. Finally, Alter Klang which refers to a poem by Paul Klee, but which re-cycles parts of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Again, this assemblage of material could feel arch and over-contrived, but Goss succeeds in re-forming the various musics into his own image.

The final piece on the disc, Park of Idols, is written for the unusual combination of cello and guitar. Each piece is an homage to musicians admired by the performers, Leonid Gorkhov and Richard Hand. The references are many and varied: Frank Zappa, Cornelia Parker’s 1991 artwork ‘Cold Dark Matter’, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14, a Pat Metheney guitar solo, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Allan Holdsworth, Robert Fripp and King Crimson.

This is a highly recommendable disc; contemporary music which manages to be approachable but does not talk down to its listeners. It helps that Goss has been supported by such a fine group of performers.

Robert Hugill



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