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CD: AmazonUK

Frank DENYER (b.1943)
On, on - it must be so (1977-78) [8:31]
Quite White (1978) [7:37]
Wheat (1977-81) [8:30]
Unnamed (1997) [45:28]
Yoshikazu Iwamoto (shakuhachi); Paul Hiley and Frank Denyer (percussion)
rec. April 1994, and May 1999 (Unnamed) at Dartington Hall, Devon, and September 1981, Royal College of Music, London (Quite White)
Experience Classicsonline

Unlike transverse flutes the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, is played vertically - a bit like a single pipe from a set of pan pipes but with finger holes. In the hands of a master such as Yoshikazu Iwamoto, this instrument is capable of a remarkable range of expression. It can sound like a human voice, conjure imagery of wind and weather or haunting owl-like cries, and with its open mouthpiece can be made to perform almost pure glissandi - something rare with woodwind instruments other than the swanee whistle.

Frank Denyer’s music, on the strength of past experience with an Etcetera label release ‘Finding Refuge in the Remains’, can be quite a tough listen. His is a serious idiom, often using microtones and influences from non-western music, and this collection of works for shakuhachi is one of the purist expressions of this affinity with worlds beyond the conventions of Western tonality and timbre. This is almost as much Yoshikazu Iwamoto’s album as it is Denyer’s. The music here is the result of a collaboration dating from 1974, and Iwamoto’s technical prowess and style suffuses everything on the disc with an aura of authentic Japanese colour - albeit within the context and framework of Denyer’s fascinating concepts.

The three first pieces on this disc were originally released on an LP in 1984, though there are no details of this with the CD. On,on - it must be so brings us into the programme with a bump, the vocal inflections and stream of inventiveness of the flute accompanied by a bass drum and castanets. This is music in a modern idiom, but the directness of communication that Iwamoto can draw from his instrument turns what might be perceived as angular melodic shapes into a monologue of massive narrative and emotional strength. Quite White is a virtuoso work from the first note, a high pitch to be played pianissimo, and a feat that Iwamoto performs repeatedly throughout the piece without apparent strain. Yoshikazu Iwamoto’s own references in these pieces are revealing statements about music which he clearly has a great affinity. Comparing Quite White with the words of T.S. Eliot; the feel of the music as “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” sums this piece up exactly. In six short movements, Wheat brings back the two percussionists, this time including specially designed bamboo slit drums and stones. Again, wailing emotions and vocal gestures are conjured, the colours and sounds of bamboo blown and struck, and the living resonance of the flute against the inorganic rap of stone against stone develop the worlds explored in the previous pieces, expanding range and dimension in six expressions or sound portraits of compact and compelling intensity.

The final work on this CD is a remarkable solo, Unnamed, and at 45 minutes Denyer’s longest work to date. This is a fully formed expression of Denyer’s mid-1990s phase of “intense concentration on extremely quiet sounds, sounds so soft and delicate they seem in danger of disappearing altogether, of being brutally nudged out of existence.” This is Bob Gilmore in his booklet notes for this release, ably summing up the atmosphere of stillness in this piece. This is music which appears through a veil of dark silence, retaining an enigmatic and secretive quality which seems to explore the world of the subconscious. Sounds are suggested, breathy and distant, very occasionally looming out at us like unexpected ghosts, or singing gently like a lullaby heard at the far end of a place both deserted and derelict. The score of Unnamed uses colour notation to indicate the complexities of the microtonal content. Tellingly, one aspect of this disturbed Yoshikazu Iwamoto, who emphatically told Denyer “I cannot play a red note.” Perhaps this could have become the title of the piece, though if there are no takers I’ll lay a claim to this myself. The recording is not listed as live, though mention of it being “recorded live at Dartington in 1999” is made at the end of the booklet notes. There are however a few patches where editing has clearly been used, suggesting someone in the audience may have had a sneeze attack. Whatever the case, there is thankfully no coughing or applause, and the flow of the piece is a superbly uninterrupted ornate gobelin tapestry of sound in minimum tamen contentus; the structural and musical patterns visible and clear if viewed obliquely, like Holbein’s anamorphic skull in ‘The Ambassadors’.

This disc represents the kind of creative collaboration and catalyst for conjoining disparate musical worlds that should serve as an inspiration and model for composers and performers alike. Contemporary western flute players have already absorbed a great deal from the influences of the East, but a piece like Unnamed has, for me at least, shown that there are huge tracts of expressive potential still to be discovered. As a listening experience it does have a great deal to offer to collectors of contemporary music, as well as fans of ‘world’ music. It is certainly not hard on the ears, but does demand a certain frame of mind or willingness to adopt a different span of concentration demanded by more familiar material. All of the recordings are very good, and there is no perceptible difference in quality between the earlier tapes and the more recent work. The acoustic leap to the Royal College of Music in Quite White is not much of a stretch, and, some innocuous ambient murmuring during Unnamed aside, the marvellous location of Dartington Hall is otherwise perfect for these works.

Dominy Clements


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