Ed BENNETT (b.1975)
Stop-Motion Music (2010)* [12:17]
Slow Down [11:12]
Cartoon Music (2007)* [7:19]
Monster [10:02]
for JF (2007) [11:11]
My Broken Machines* [9:57]
Ghosts (2008) [11:01]
Decibel (*), The Fidelio Trio (Slow Down), Paul Roe – bass clarinet (Monster), ConTempo Quartet (for JF), Garth Knox – viola d’amore (Ghosts)
rec. 2006-2010, various locations.

As Bob Gilmore mentions in his informative booklet notes for this release, Northern Irish composer Ed Bennett’s musical language “looks across the water, towards England and continental Europe in one direction, and to the east coast of America in the other.” This is an aspect of contemporary music which will make the gliding glissandi and repetitions of a piece like Stop-Motion Music familiar to those who have an acquaintance with, for instance, the Dutch ‘minimalist sound’ of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a sound associated with ensembles like De Volharding which were wind and percussion led, with the sturdy foundation of an electric bass guitar to keep the harmony as well as the rhythm punchy and grounded.

Bennett likes his glissandi, and the strings of Slow Down play these against the sustain of a piano to create an atmosphere of landscape and reflection. The strings of the piano are sometimes plucked or struck with something other than the hammers of the instrument, changing the colour of the notes and generating changes in the harmonic relationships between that and the strings in intriguing ways. The movement of the shifting sustained notes occasionally create traditional harmonies as if by chance, and the brain attaches itself to them like precious landmarks.

As its title suggests, Cartoon Music uses the imagery and associations of cartoons of the Road Runner type as the starting point for a work which is in fact more serious than mere parody. There are plenty of technical high jinks from saxophone and percussion, the former sometimes acting like the voice of a character, the latter implying chasing sequences and slapstick thwacks. The piano adds some harmonic interest but is almost relegated to the function of a continuo part in comparison to the other instruments.

The sheer expressive sonority and weight of the bass clarinet personifies a Monster in its own right, and this piece pits the soloist against an electronic treatment of his own playing which may have you wondering if your playback equipment is functioning correctly - such are the jittery fragments which emerge. Voices in German also emerge from the electronic backdrop, making non-sequitur remarks and ‘adding to the cinematic ambience.’ This piece is fully notated but has an improvisatory feel, indeed including some sections which allow for deviation from the score and some wild performing from Paul Roe. There is some nice ambient texture with a sustained electronic tone further on in the piece, but I’m not convinced by the addition of those ‘orchestra hit’ effects.

JF is a string quartet which succeeds in wresting the ensemble from its cosy 18th and 19th century traditional function, placing it through a technical filter which creates effects of distortion more associated with rock guitars. Aptly put by Bob Gilmore, “the ’conversation between four gentlemen’ is here replaced by a wild shouting match”, generating a consistently energetic and lively dose of shrill aversion therapy.

The title track, My Broken Machines is also the earliest of the pieces in this programme. This takes as its starting point the composer’s memories of amusement arcades and their bizarrely exotic machines. The sinister elements in this collection of apparatus, ’laughing policemen, mechanical fortune tellers, tests of strength, ghost trains…’ was heightened by the decay and abandonment which set Bennett’s imagination alight as he would pass the closed up building. The percussion-heavy score is marked ‘Calm with interruptions’, summing up a mood of silence which is broken by a “crazy carnival continuing inside while the unsuspecting public continued about their daily lives.” This leads on nicely to the final work, Ghosts, for amplified viola d’amore, which recreates another nocturnal interior, that of the Irish Cultural Institute - “a place with a long history” we are told. The sympathetic strings of the viola d’amore are amplified, spotlighting these unusual acoustic effects and re-balancing the sound to create what at times seems in effect to be an almost entirely new instrument. There are aspects of the writing which are folk-like, the performer creating a hardanger-fiddle effect at times. These Ghosts are often obstreperous and argumentative, but also have a sentimental side, recalling past musics and moaning softly on occasion, and disappearing finally into the ether - beyond the range of hearing.

This is a fine collection of pieces by a composer with a clear vision and a healthy dose of talent. All of the performances and recordings are excellent, and NMC’s presentation is beyond criticism. In general all of the works have their own sense of conviction and few weaknesses, though I can’t say any one of them in particular hit me between the eyes and made me lament what I’d been missing for the past few years. Much of what you hear on this CD may seem new, but this programme fits neatly into what most of today’s musicians would categorise as contemporary mainstream.

Dominy Clements

Very good, but I’m still dry all over.