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Graham REYNOLDS (b.1971)
The Difference Engine (2010) [21:31]
5 remixes [20:20]
Leah Zeger (violin)
Jonathan Dexter (cello)
Graham Reynolds (piano)
Unnamed Ensemble
rec. February 2010, Austin, Texas.
INNOVA 790 [41:51]

Experience Classicsonline

Described as a composer/bandleader, Texas-based Graham Reynolds cast his creative net widely, working in film, theatre and dance music as well as for concert halls and pop venues. Described as ‘a triple concerto’, The Difference Engine received its première performance on 6th February 2010, but is a work which was developed over a number of years. The piece loosely follows a concert pattern, or more perhaps a concert-grosso format with a group of three soloists and a 35-piece string ensemble. Reynolds’ attraction to working with a narrative sees him use the story of 19th century inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage’s attempt to create the world’s first computer as its starting point.

As almost any composition in a tonal idiom has to be these days, The Difference Engine is a fairly eclectic mix, but impressively well written and highly effective for all that. Its five movements begin with a mechanically driving ostinato movement, The Cogwheel Brain, which sets up a mood of exploratory energy and some unexpected sonorities, given the chamber-music look to the instrumentation on the cover of this release. Sustained strings give atmosphere to the themes and imitative counterpoint of Ada, which after about three and a half minutes takes on the character of some of Michael Nyman’s later film music. The central movement is a potent rhythmic number, with light percussion on the wood of the piano and some off-the-bridge syncopation from the ensemble. This takes on the character of tango and klezmer in its development and melodic variations. Late at Night/The Astronomer is a more reflective movement as its title suggests, solo strings in expressive, descending melancholy, with a simple piano accompaniment providing further atmosphere. The oscillating harmonic world is to a certain extent that of Philip Glass, while retaining integrity with the rest of the piece. The work concludes with an eponymous movement which opens with a cadenza on the violin, and takes off with a ‘czardas’ feel to round off the piece by bringing in elements from the other movements and ending with a rousing flourish.

The programme is further made up of a set of remixes of each movement, made by Reynolds’ collaborators DJ Spooky, Octopus Project, Grammy-nominated producer Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma, Golden Hornet Project’s Peter Stopschinski, and including one from the composer himself. Like some of the transformed material from Eighth Blackbird, this kind of work can have a fascinating effect, transforming the original to such an extent that it becomes an entirely new piece, often to remain with surprising persistence in the memory. There is a deal more pounding of beat-boxes here, but more often than not done in interesting ways. Octopus Project brings The Cogwheel Brain somewhere towards the world of Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’, ending with an extended Ringo Starr-a-like drum break. I prefer the composer’s original of Cam Stack & Crank Handle to the remix, which has some nice fade-in ’n drop touches and develops well as a dance number, but doesn’t really add much over the top of the more interesting string ensemble material which now alas is relegated to low in the mix. The Astronomer is given a decent spy-movie/proto-Bollywood spruce up by Adrian Quesada which is a worthy alternative, and DJ Spooky gives Ada a refreshingly straightforward upbeat funk treatment which is good fun.

This is another grand release from Innova. The recorded quality is a bit processed-sounding, but this is the nature of the beast with a production like this, and there are nothing but good things to report. I’ve certainly enjoyed entering the world of Graham Reynolds with this release, and will certainly be looking out for his name in future.

Dominy Clements