Recomposed by Matthew HERBERT (b.1972)
Mahler Symphony X [37:30]
Using: Philharmonia Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
with Michael Trabesinger (solo viola)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 06025 2734438 6 [37:30]

This release follows on from another DG ‘Recomposed’ disc in which Detroit musician Carl Craig and Berlin’s Moritz von Oswald have worked on some classical evergreens recorded by Herbert von Karajan. Matthew Herbert’s is not a name one would immediately associate with the classical music world. As an electronic musician his stage/recording artist names include Mr. Rockit, Radioboy and Mr. Vertigo, but as one of the deeper thinkers of the scene his work has been involved in some significant collaborations and can be counted as making a substantial contribution to the avant-garde underground.

Herbert’s booklet notes justify this experiment in part by referring to Mahler’s own tendency to revise, arrange and alter his own and other composer’s works. “The intention ... is to re-imagine one performance of the Adagio from the unfinished tenth through the filter of a modern studio.” If you do a little internet trawling you may find Matthew Herbert on YouTube, setting up one of the recording takes situated inside a coffin. He also goes to Mahler’s summer composing hut in Toblach as seen on the cover, records at Mahler’s grave, a crematorium, and out of the window of a passing hearse. I don’t know if using a recording by a recently lamented conductor was intentional, but it will add an extra layer of meaning for some. The whole thing for Herbert “is not however intended to be some grim mausoleum ... It is supposed to be an amplification of the unsettling balance I hear in the original work between light and dark.”

This is an interesting premise, and the opening to these nine tracks or musical scenes is highly promising. The crackling natural sounds of chill winter around the Toblach cabin mix in with, muffled, subdued and artificially extended, the nine note multi-tonal chord which leaps out of at the climax of the Adagio. This chilling undertone is serenaded by a viola playing the movement’s enigmatic opening theme on location, the last notes of which are taken over by the Sinopoli recording, filtered and hollow, cutting off just as the rising horn stops at the end of bar 23. This is where this kind of thing works best, creating new, surreal sounds from recognisable material, layering effects and shifting perspectives while at the same time maintaining form and discipline.

There is apparently not a great deal new under the sun in studio land however. While studying in The Hague in the 1980s me and most of my composer colleagues went through a good deal of the filtering, flanging, phasing and distorting kinds of most of the electronic effects we hear here - usually with cheap reject equipment like an old Fostex 3050 electronic digital delay box I used to have. Ah, memories. It’s so much easier these days with computer software, and I too find I’m coming back to working with sound files for serious projects rather than corralling troublesome and expensive musicians. Composers have been exploring this sort of electronic transforming and juxtaposition with concrete sounds before and since Edgard Varèse wowed the 1958 Brussels World Fair with his Poème électronique. There are a few magical moments in this Mahler Symphony X which I will come to later, but most of what this tinkering around shows us is that there isn’t a great deal one can do to deepen Mahler’s message by funking up a pre-existing recording.

My list of good moments? There are quite a few in fact. 57 seconds into track 4 the orchestral tutti comes in with remarkable force and effect with a roar of added distortion harmonics. The ‘radio on plus footsteps’ effect works well at 2:00 into track 5 after we’ve been softened up by the orchestra floating up from a deep well of reverb, but the atmosphere is subsequently shot through with some modulation wobbles which don’t do a great deal. The diffusion effect 35 seconds into track 6 is interesting, the music thinning and decaying - almost becoming deconstructed, before a rather heavy-handed upping of the volume, and some also rather naff and poorly timed acoustic transformations later on here and also in track 7 - just a little more effort with some cross-fading would have done the trick. I do like the transition from track 6 to 7 though, with the orchestra made to chime on like a huge bell. Track 7 at 2:47 takes the Etwas zögernd section at bar 184 into another impressively dark place, with the overlaying of the violins in the subsequent bars creating a satisfyingly mysterious mood. At 4:37 that huge desperate climax is inverted, being placed extremely softly in the mix, which is a surprisingly effective idea. The big chord is however let free at last and subjected to a bit of doom disco, which is fine as such but sounds very much stranded amongst the other more subtle effects. I’m always up for a bit of Vocoder-style filtering, and the beginning of track 8 serves us some badly-tuned radio effect before some impressive repressed electronic groans and gentle multi-layering in the second and third minute: very ‘beyond the grave’. The end of track 8 and first section of 9 are nicely restrained, but such a moment could have been extended, the effect like waves lapping slowly on a shallow beach has great potential for development. Towards the third minute into track 9 shows how less can be more, the music fairly simply treated and all the more effective as a result, the closing of the cabin door a fitting final full stop.

This is a nicely presented disc in DG’s distinctive bright yellow, served in a neat gatefold sleeve and with some suitably moody photos in the booklet. A nice gesture would have been to put the Sinopoli/Philharmonia recording on in its original form as well as the new piece, but as it is this is little more than a CD single, full price. There is a fascinating paragraph in the booklet which I quote here in full: “For digital purposes this piece is separated into different tracks, however it was recorded as one piece of music, and is designed to be listened to as such. We cannot be held responsible for the unexpected artistic consequences of doing otherwise.” This is either a very good joke, or absolutely the kind of warning which should be included with any classical piece of music. Heaven knows what the artistic consequences would be if an innocent listener were accidentally to access one of those cue points within the movement of a Mahler symphony - imagine the unexpected confusion and rending of garments. The hilarious thing is that this piece has also been released as a vinyl LP, so in turning from side one to side two there are going to be numerous victims of the unexpected artistic consequences of doing other than listening to the piece as such. Come on people, there is nothing more challenging on this CD than ‘The Beatles’, and I think we’re grown up enough to use a piece of music which is longer than your usual pop tune with responsibility, and without getting the heebie-geebies if we encounter strange sounds without prior warning or a 15 second instrumental intro.

It would be easy to dismiss this project as Mahler X Decomposed rather than Recomposed. This might be trite and unfair, though I am surprised at seeing a commercial release of this kind which has such an unfinished quality. In the end, Recomposed comes across more as a student final year project - pass with merit - rather than something really profound, and I do wonder at DG’s wisdom in finding something which seems designed to fall between just about every potential audience. Other than hoping some Matthew Herbert fans will explore it and find they want to discover Mahler for real, it doesn’t seem as if it will appeal to many hard core dance/electronic people. Classical collectors will probably hate it because it just messes around with a much loved piece of music. I don’t dislike it, but in the end can’t say it adds a great deal to our understanding of anything very much - certainly nothing beyond that which Mahler has already uttered in so mind-bendingly and emotionally gripping a way in his late Adagio. All of this is said with an appreciation of how much work has gone into creating this piece, which in the end is another problem in its production: one footfall on a floorboard is much the same as any other, even if we are told it is Mahler’s cabin’s floorboard. The frustrating thing is it could have achieved so much as the opening track of this CD shows. I think this would however only happen with more original thinking and a willingness to abandon the Adagio as ‘a piece of music’. The weakness here is ultimately with the concept as a whole; that ‘re-imagining of one performance of the Adagio’ with rather too much emphasis on it as a fixed point, rather than as a magnificent framework and chocolate box of remarkable sounds for the creation of something really new.

Dominy Clements

Interesting, but well flawed innit.