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Thomas SIMAKU (b.1958)
Voci Celesti – String Quartet No.3 (2004) [12:57]
Due Sotto–Voci, per violino solo (2003) [13:39]
Soliloquy I (for violin solo) (1998) [10:10]
Soliloquy II (for cello solo) (2001) [12:52]
Soliloquy III (for viola solo) (2002) [11:26]
Radius – String Quartet No.2 (2003) [13:29]
Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin), Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin), Morgan Goff (viola), Neil Heyde (cello))
rec. 18-20 December 2006, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York. DDD
NAXOS 8.570428 [74:34] 


Experience Classicsonline

Over the years I have listened to, and performed, more contemporary music than I can remember; I’ve even written some and added to the catalogue. Like all music, the works I heard and performed were of varying qualities and both the good and the bad stick in the memory. One of the first things I learned about contemporary music was that when a new sound was used by one composer it quickly started appearing all over the place, the most obvious of these effects was the Bartók pizzicato, which was taken up by almost everyone. It’s a striking sound - no pun intended - when used sparingly and colouristically. With the advent of the avant-garde of the 1960s new sounds became available. Multiphonics for the wind instruments had its day in classical music, then came all the bewildering varieties of producing different sounds for stringed instruments – sul ponticello (on the bridge),
sul tasto (on the fingerboard), behind the bridge, col legno (playing on the string with the wood of the bow), tapping the wood with the nut of the bow and harmonics, to name but a few. Naturally, some of these effects had been heard before the 1960s but that was the decade where anything was allowed to go, and it quite often did. 

Thomas Simaku is an Albanian-born composer who graduated from Tirana Conservatoire and gained a doctorate in composition from York University, where he studied with David Blake, in 1995. He says that his exposure to folk musicians and listening to ancient songs, whilst working in a remote part of southern Albania, had a lasting effect on his music, and the resonances of that sound-world are now subconsciously becoming part of his own music. I have no problems with any of this. Indeed the use of folk material, or folk-inflected material - Simaku says that he does not use real folk material in any of the works recorded here - has been with us for over a century. The range and variety of those myriad compositions is well known to all of us. One of the most exciting things about the use of this folk material is the variety of music it has inspired and helped to create. 

Surely it’s this great variety of works which is most exciting and satisfying to a listener. It’s this great variety of music which can be created from folk-derived material which is exactly what is lacking in these works. 

The two Quartets, Simaku tells us, “… in different ways, explore the static quality of the drone-based type of linearity …” yet the Third Quartet is full of action, plus lots of sul ponticello, glissandi, Bartók pizzicato and the like. What the music doesn’t have is any logical progression. What Simaku has done is to build a work based almost entirely on tried and true sonorities – old sonorities but not necessarily newly minted, perhaps – with the occasional passage of single notes or chords sustained for a time to depict drones. The Second Quartet begins quite beautifully, slow and quiet, full of expectation - a real melody! - but all too soon we’re off on rapid passagework, dissonant chords, long-held solo notes (the drone revisited?), quiet tremolando which becomes sul ponticello and so on. By the mid-point we’re back in the usual four instrument scramble where the sound is scratchy and ugly. It’s as if the players were trying to get the ensemble back together after becoming hopelessly lost. At one point the music did seem to be going somewhere with some kind of development but it was stopped before anything could be fully realized. 

The solo pieces go over the same ground in the same way – ponticello, Bartók pizzicato and so on. These pieces are an handbook of what was happening in the 1960s with nothing new added. I have no problem with the 1960s for that decade fascinates me – especially as I was too young to really understand what was going on at the time. However I am also fascinated by progression, growth and the seeking out of new things in music, not just sonorities but language and expression. What we have here is ideas we’ve heard many times before, and from more experienced hands. Simaku fails to convince me that he has anything of relevance to say and as the music lacks any real individual personality there is little to which one can relate. 

There are many followers of contemporary music who will want this disk, but, for me, music without any logical development, where the music fails to progress towards a goal, is not music. It’s sound for its own sake with nothing to back it up, and that is vacuous music. 

The booklet is excellent and the sound is very clear so you can hear every detail.

Bob Briggs


Comment received from the composer

I hope you would forgive me for this unsolicited e-mail, but I just read a review by Bob Briggs of my latest CD on Naxos.

I never enter into correspondence with reviewers (my job is to write the music), but I thought of writing these lines to you as the founder of MusicWeb.

I don't expect everyone to like my music, and of course everyone is entitled of their opinion; but one expect the reviewer to be correct! Among other things, Mr Briggs writes, and I quote:

"" "The two Quartets, Simaku tells us, "… in different ways, explore the static quality of the drone-based type of linearity …" yet the Third Quartet is full of action, plus lots of sul ponticello, glissandi, Bartók pizzicato and the like. "

I will not comment on his comments, but I can assure you that there is not a single Bartok pizzicato in my 3rd quartet ( so I don't know where Mr Briggs got this one!); there are only three soft pizz (pp) in the 3rd quartet, and none whatsoever in the 2nd.

By the way, I find musicweb a very good site, with lots of information.

Wishing you all the very best
Yours faithfully

Thomas Simaku

Dr T. Simaku
Music Department
University of York
York YO10 5DD
Tel. (+44) (0) 1904 434 448


Dear Mr Simaku,

Thank you for your comments concerning my review of your new Naxos CD. There are a couple of points I would like to make in my defense.

After I read the notes, always a good starting point when approaching a composer who is new to you, I played the CD four times over the next two days. What I heard did not appeal to me for a variety of reasons - which need not be investigated here - suffice it to say that your music didn't grab me, and I thought that I must convey my feelings to whoever reads the site. I will not say that I am right, but I had to speak as I heard.

As to the obviously vexed question of the use of Bartok pizzicato I can only say that I heard something which sounded like the Bartok pizzicato. Having not seen the music for these pieces I am at a loss to know what sound you used which came across as the Bartok pizzicato. I apologise for this mishearing.

I wish you all the best for the future and I look forward to hearing your future works for I am always interested in what is happening in contemporary composition and, whether I enjoy it or not, it cannot be ignored by anyone, nor should it.

Avanti! Mr Simaku.

Best wishes

Bob Briggs


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