Every so often I receive a CD that is outwith my usual area of interest. In this case it was two albums of music that could be described as pseudo-minimalist and possibly bordering on the ‘new-age’. I have always had a lot of sympathy for minimalist music ever since the efforts of Philip Glass and Steve Reich became known in the UK during the seventies and eighties. In fact, my first major encounter with this genre was Reich’s Desert Music
which was given at the Proms in 1985. There has been much development of this music over the years, but certain key stylistic markers are usually present. These include silence, pattern music, concept music often with exotic titles, and a use of largely consonant, or at least softly dissonant, harmonies. To this could be added a certain hypnotic feel that could enable the listener to, at the very least, ‘chill’ or at the most extreme, embark on a ‘mystic journey’. This latter description is how one reviewer has reacted to Rosemary Duxbury’s music.
There is always a danger of over-egging the ‘spiritual’ value of this kind - or of any kind - of music. Many reviewers suggest that these present works have a transcendent quality: it seems that some people want to use this music for therapy or for getting into the mood for yoga and massage sessions. The composer’s web-page had a testimonial from Anthony Pither, Director of Music at the University of Leicester who describes her music as being ‘a special brand of minimalism in a profound spiritual context.’ Although this may be one enthusiast’s opinion of her works it is perhaps over-emphasising the profundity. However, the added value that Duxbury has brought to the minimalist genre is a strong sense of melody and, therefore, by implication, a sense of direction and development which is so often missing in other works of this genre.
Certainly, there is no doubt in my mind that this music is approachable: it does not require repeated listening to gain an understanding or sympathy. But therein lies a problem. It may well be that this music is too
‘approachable’ and therefore ceases to be challenging. I guess that many listeners will put these CDs into the player or onto their iPods and will through-listen - such as we all do with ‘pop’ music. Yet, there is a huge danger that by doing this much is lost. The stylistic parameters of these works are largely similar and there could
be a tendency for them to merge into one long piece of everlasting music that starts nowhere and goes nowhere. This would be unfortunate, for individually each one of these works is excellent and deserves a concentrated and individual hearing.
The first CD I listened to is Streams
which is largely made up of piano works, including what is in fact Duxbury’s ‘piano sonata’. Passage
was composed in 2000 and is dedicated to her husband. It is a striking work that has power, depth and maintains the listener’s interest, in spite of the (apparently) relatively limited material used. It is the first minimalist piano sonata that I have heard and I enjoyed it very much. Passage
deserves to be listened as a complete work - separate from the other pieces on this CD.
Two short piano works are included on this disc - Après
- both are attractive and take the listener with them. They do
nod to Nyman and the rest but have a good melodic content which stops them from being derivative.
The eponymous Streams
is the longest work on this CD and is actually a suite of four pieces. The composer writes that her ‘initial source of inspiration is from within, a place where I feel the life-force, which can be experienced as streams of light and sound, (and) can be accessed. Hence the title ‘Streams’. If the music inspires or uplifts the listener, and can enable them to discover that place or source within themselves, then I am delighted and feel the music has been successful.’
There is a considerable contrast between these four pieces but there also appears to be an internal unity. Perhaps that is what leads to the sense of stasis and beauty to which so many of her reviewers allude. Even so, the ‘inspirational’ part of her programme note appears to ignore the sheer hard work of writing a piece of music of this calibre. Percentages of inspiration and perspiration ...
The opening number on this CD is a ten minute piece for string orchestra and harp called Light Falling
. So far, it remains the composer’s only published essay of orchestral music. It was written in 1992 after the composer Geoffrey Burgon suggested that she write a companion work to an earlier string piece (still extant?). Duxbury notes that, ‘I compared the inspiration of an inner experience of light 'falling' to that of snow falling lightly like soft downy feathers forming a new brighter landscape of light which was happening outside my window as I wrote the piece.’ Again, the listener may well ignore the programme note and just enjoy the music.
The second CD is On Wings of Light: it has a further selection of piano music coupled with a number of chamber pieces.
The major work here is the sequence of Three Piano Preludes: Awakenings, On Wings of Light and Entrance. In fact, taken together they last for nearly 35 minutes which makes for a major piece that demands attention. I am not sure whether they were designed to be played as a group, but they do seem to work well together; the composer suggests that they can be played stand-alone. The constructional bases of these preludes are the keynote ostinato and shifting harmonic patterns. Yet this is delivered in what might be described as a Lisztian manner rather than in typical minimalistic writing. It is an impressive piece, which along with the ‘piano sonata’, ought to be in the standard concert repertoire. Both these works move from the world of possibly pseudo-‘New-Age’ spirituality into the world of the recital room.
I was not quite sure at first what to make of the three chamber works - one each for cello, viola and oboe. In these pieces Duxbury adopts classical forms and instrumentation and patches her musical language onto them. It is a novel genre. However they work well, with the ‘haunting’ Atma’s Flight being particularly memorable.
The music is well played on both CDs. Rosemary Duxbury has found an ideal champion in the pianist Patricia Siffert - and not forgetting the other performers who make a major contribution to the success of these discs.
A couple of ‘opportunities’. I was disappointed with the lack of programme notes. This was most problematic insofar as I had to check the website for dates. Even there it was not possible to find out all I needed to know and I had to ask the composer for further details. Some description of the pieces along with particulars of their genesis, performance history and reception would have been helpful. It is not always possible to ‘log-on’ for this sort of information. And finally, the sleeve-design, artwork and packaging of these two discs are presented more as ‘pop’ or ‘alternative’ albums than as ‘classical’ CDs. They deserve to be taken much more seriously than that.
Minimalist music is a distinctive genre, but as I noted earlier Rosemary Duxbury does bring added value to this style. I guess if I was to try to explain what ‘it sounds like’ it would have hints of Michael Nyman, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and even Arvo Pärt. Debussy’s Cathèdrale Engloutie is never far from the sound world of her music.
And finally, so many of her reviewers note the ‘timeless’ nature of her music - it is this more than anything else that is perhaps the defining quality of these two CDs.
For a short biography of Rosemary Duxbury see her webpage