Nothing Left To Destroy

The Discofication of the Mongols, for Violin and CPU (2009) [35:17]
S’Wonderful (that the man I love watches over me) for flute and CPU (2010) [26:57]
Benjamin Bowman (violin)
Douglas Stewart (flute)
rec. dates not given, mixed May 2011.
INNOVA 813 [62:14]

With a grungy title and a cover which reminds me a little of Monty Python’s ‘Another Monty Python Record’, this CD projects a ‘bad boy’ image which belies some fascinating work.

The Discofication of the Mongols was created for a choreography by LeeSu-Feh, and the music derives its proportions from choreographic gestures. The title of the piece “concerns the loss of all indigenous culture to the monolith of western pop music... The ever –approaching climax has an accumulative size, density, overlapping submixes and pop references, until it crushes everything under its own weight (secretly inspired by the design of Stockhausen’s Gruppen and Boulez’s Tombeau).” This description gives a hint as to the content of the piece, but very little other than hearing it can really describe the actual experience. There is an underlying carpet of sound which is like a Jackson Pollock painting: fascinating and enigmatic; filled with recognisable shapes which collect into patterns of enigmatic or intangible perspective. Objects advance momentarily like flashes of sparingly used colour, but the general swathe of tone is an oppressive, constantly shifting wall of detailed purples. The ‘pop’ elements are present and also emerge like plastic ducks in bathwater, but the disco beats and electric guitars are balanced so that they also are family members of the vast canvas, rather than taking over as you might expect. The violin solo is a free voice which sings over the material with disarming expressiveness. This is not a violin concerto, but neither is it an ungrateful piece for the soloist, and Benjamin Bowman does a terrific job of holding his lines over a relatively alien accompaniment without losing ‘classical’ integrity.

There are some attractive harmonic progressions and finely nuanced sonic textures in this piece, and I found myself enjoying it far more than I expected. There’s a sense of wit hidden in the piece and a warmth of resonance which is quite welcoming, but I won’t promise it will be to everyone’s taste. If you like at least bits of Frank Zappa’s Jazz From Hell or something akin to The Residents in WB:RMX form you will probably find this right up your street. If I have one or two criticisms they might be the duration which is arguably eight or so minutes too long, and the occasional left/right/left/right panning which has never been any good for anything. This doesn’t crop up much thank goodness, but there you go, nothing’s perfect.

S’Wonderful (that the man I love watches over me) is, as the title suggests, based on some Gershwin songs which the composer associated with his parents, the work being dedicated to the memory of his mother. Elements mentioned in the piece’s construction are the quodlibet: the integration of popular themes into a work in all kinds of ways, and some multi-tempo dance sequences from MGM musicals. Tap dancing feet can be heard, as well as some of that fantasy colour of those cinematic orchestras, with violin textures and harp arpeggios. Dialogue from 1930s gangster and romantic movies pops up from time to time, as well as do ‘standard’ singers from a light jazz idiom. The CPU computer treatment means that this material melts into itself with a kind organic unity which is both complex and refined, as well as serving to disguise the obvious. The solo flute over this kind of territory seems to throw an automatic switch of sentimentality which may or may not appeal, and the thematic material thrown its way isn’t particularly decisive for the piece as a whole.

This again is a fascinating sonic canvas –for a large part softer edged than Discofication, but still building to a mighty climax and bringing with it a similar multi-layering of sounds, textures and rich associations. Both works have a sense of narrative and cadence which speaks to the ‘learned composer’ in me, and there’s a lot of hard work and craft has gone into these pieces which automatically gains my genuine respect. The composer very kindly sent me the scores for the solo parts for both works, and the detail and precision in which the music is notated indicates a seriousness of intent which is reflected in the quality of the results. This isn’t what you would call ‘everyday’ music, but for that reason neither is it bland or disposable.

Dominy Clements

Fascinating sonic canvases.