Camden REEVES (1974) Night Descending (2001) [45:08]
Gemini (Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet); Caroline Balding (violin); Robin Michael (cello); Clive Williamson (piano)); Alison Wells (mezzo)
rec. Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, University of Manchester, England, 30-31 July 2007
One of the abiding pleasures I have writing reviews for this website is the opportunity to listen to music and composers about which I know nothing at all. For all the enjoyment to be gained from an encounter with a cherished composition nothing quite beats the thrill of a discovery. There will also be new works that leave you quite unmoved or worse. Night Descending by Camden Reeves falls into neither category unfortunately - leaving me strangely indifferent. Reeves is a composer whose work was previously unknown to me. He currently teaches composition at Manchester University. This work was written for the performers on this disc and was premiered by them in Manchester in 2004. Reeves’ musical vocabulary is essentially tonal in a serious post-modern idiom. Without a score I cannot tell if he uses serial techniques to any extent. It is clearly complex writing but what I yearn for is greater musical variety – he weaves complex intricate textures but for me the unrelenting streams of notes wear. Given the fact that the disc was produced by the composer we must assume that what you hear is pretty much exactly what the composer intended.
Gemini is the instrumental group here and superbly accomplished they are too. They seem to have a fluid line-up which centres on the bass-clarinet of founder-director Ian Mitchell. The chosen instrumentation here is piano, violin, cello and bass clarinet. Ironically, with the exception of the bass clarinet Reeves makes his players work very hard – violinist Caroline Balding in particular having an unrelenting brute of a part which she dispatches with great aplomb and skill. Given that this is a song-cycle my absolutely main stumbling block is the voice of mezzo-soprano Alison Wells. She sings with utter conviction and confident attack. Unfortunately I find the actual timbre of her voice very ungrateful in the extreme. Much of the writing is positively operatic in its dramatic style and this results in Wells producing a hardened tone marred by a wide and distorting vibrato. And just when I thought the vocal element couldn’t get worse the final section of the work becomes a narration. I’ve written elsewhere of my ill-ease with the combination of the spoken word and music. In essence this is because it results all too often in a style of speech that attempts to sound portentous or profound and just ends up wan. Singers are rarely great actors when deprived of music and so it proves here – the final paragraph of Reeves’s adaption of Poe’s The Raven sounding fey and arch.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. This is a five movement song-cycle where the first and third movements are purely instrumental and frame three settings of famous English poetry. Reeves in his too-brief liner note tells us that these texts; “have in common the use of a particular animal as a metaphor for repressed psychological fears and desires.” Clearly Reeves has more trouble sleeping than I do since the 4th movement instrumental Nocturne illustrates “the [cello] soloist’s frantic ‘tossing and turning’ [which] takes us on a nightmarish journey: a free association of images that weaves together musical materials taken from the other four movements.” Certainly, Reeves prefers action to stasis. The prevailing mood through the work – which plays without a pause – is one of near constant agitation. Only towards the end of the final movement The Raven is this replaced by something altogether quieter if not calmer. This last movement, at least until the speaking started, was the movement I enjoyed most. Throughout the violin and bass clarinet seems balanced behind the voice and piano - who are presented as the main musical protagonists - but here, where the writing for the violin seems to capture the scurrying eerie nightmare of Poe’s original, the effect works well. This is further aided in this movement by the solemn slowly stalking bass line of the chosen passacaglia form. Immediately there is the connection between musical form and text that I have missed elsewhere. It is not that I need this to be brainlessly illustrative, far from it, but I do like one to be supportive or at least suggestive of the other. Too often the dramatic gesture seems irrelevant to the set word. The text of The Raven is the only one of the three that explicitly is about fear and night-terrors. The actual meaning behind both Tennyson’s The Kraken and Blake’s The Tiger seems far more open to debate; some commentators relating the former to the industrialisation of Britain. I’m not nearly enough of an expert in that field to offer any kind of an opinion but it did strike me on my very first listen that I wasn’t sure what those poems had to do with ‘night descending.’
My grouch about the liner-note is that this would be a great opportunity for a composer to elaborate on exactly what his motivations, musical and otherwise, were for a piece as well as a technical break-down of the structure of the work. I’ve quoted the note at some length above because I find these type of statements neither illuminating nor informative. Apparently the movements also increase in length “exponentially” to give a sense of diminishing consciousness. Now come on, what listener, in all honesty, even on a subliminal level, would equate increasing time span with diminishing consciousness? Apart from the minor detail that I’m not sure exponential is quite the right word here. The movements are 4:26, 5:31, 7:54, 11:50 and 15:27. Exponential growth means an increase which is a function of the current value. If it is not exponential growth – it just gets longer in fact – don’t dress a simple explanation up in such terminology! As it happens, the disc nowhere gives the track timings which is all part of the minimalist philosophy of the packaging perhaps but why not particularly if time seems to play an important part in the conception! I mentioned earlier that Reeves was also part of the production team. Certainly the disc is cleanly recorded although I do have issues with the overall instrumental balance. Because this is a busy and dynamic score I think a little more air and acoustic around the players would have made it a less oppressive listening experience. I should stress however that such is the quality of all the playing that none have anything to fear from the forensic attention to which their playing is subjected; it just does not recreate any kind of natural listening environment. The disc runs to barely forty-five minutes which is surely a mistake. Rightly or wrongly disc length plays an important part in many purchaser’s calculations; surely something else could have been found either in the ensemble’s repertoire or the composer’s catalogue to fill the unused half hour of available space. Clearly a great deal of hard work has gone into the preparation of this disc. Music of this complexity requires hours of private study and group rehearsal to achieve a performance anything near to the virtuosity and confidence displayed here. My experience of contemporary music is that with very few exceptions it grows in stature with familiarity and I have no doubt this will be the case here. However it is not a work that engaged my emotions on the level at which I currently comprehend it.
Nick Barnard
Did not engage my emotions ... see Full Review