2011 PLUG: Music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland 2011 PLUG New Music Festival
Christopher DUNCAN (b.1989)
*Twine, for chamber ensemble [5:12]
Twitching, for solo clarinet [7:31]
Die Nachtblume, for soprano and piano [2:54]
*Barotrauma, for chamber ensemble [7:57]
*Surge, for chamber ensemble [6:13]
Sojourn Aufenthalt, for soprano and piano [4:09]
Lewis MURPHY (b.1992)
Am Turme, for soprano and chamber ensemble [7:35]
Gill's Delirium, for two clarinets and percussion [8:44]
Calum Robertson (clarinet) (Miles)
Jessica Leary (soprano), Alasdair Macaskill (piano) (Shucksmith)
Fiona Wilkie (soprano), Theodoros Iosifidis (piano) (Capperauld)
Nigel Boddice, conductor (Murphy)
Fraser Langton, Calum Robertson (clarinets), James Gorman, Glynn Forrest (percussion) (Forman)
rec. 2011 PLUG Festival, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow (live recordings). DDD
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6192 [50:40]
The puff for this CD from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) states that "PLUG started off from a lack of enthusiasm for what had become the official annual contemporary music festival. We felt that the canon of what is generally accepted as contemporary music in the UK was no longer relevant to our students so we wanted to create something new." Those are the words of composer Gordon McPherson, who is also Head of Composition at the RCS - until recently the RSAMD, or Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. What could he mean by "the canon of what is generally accepted as contemporary music"? Is there really a canon? Surely all contemporary music is contemporary music, whether anyone "accepts" it or not?
More importantly, there is such a huge amount of new art music being written, of almost endless variety, it seems implausible that all of it could be "no longer relevant" to McPherson's students. In any case, the students are studying composition at the RCS, presumably, because they want to be composers, whose profession or compulsion it is to write music, whether or not it is relevant or necessary or even likeable.
It is a pity that institutions and promoters do not stick to straight facts, which in this case are these: this CD contains a selection of music from the RCS's own annual 'PLUG Festival', which since 2006 has showcased new music from the Conservatoire's students and premiered over 300 works. Let the listener take over from there!
McPherson does the RCS no favours by stating that "PLUG has grown [sic] from strength to strength and is now heralded as one of the most exciting festivals in the UK, if not wider, for new music." On the other hand, it must be said that this is not a case of hype hiding inadequacy. The various works in this programme, as well as the performances, are at worst not too bad, whilst some are really rather good.
With regard to the opening work, Glasgow-born Christopher Duncan writes that Twine "is a piece about my love for Electronica music. Scandinavian Electronica music, in particular, has influence a lot of my music." Fortunately Duncan's music is better than his ability to write good English: Twine is an attractive easy listen, broadly neo-Classical in spirit. It is upstaged, however, by American Timothy Miles's Twitching, spectacularly performed by Calum Robertson, for whom it was written: - a memorably virtuosic workout for the clarinet, trilling and jerking up and down, in and out until it literally runs out of puff.
Surge was written by another Glaswegian, Claire McCue. To her credit, the work was performed last year on BBC Radio 3's Hear and Now programme. It is a stylish, colourfully orchestrated piece, its quiet, twitchy first bars the prelude to the titular 'surge' of energy. The opening of Jason Staddon's Barotrauma is superficially quite similar for a while. The piece is named after, and is a musical abstraction of, of all things, an ear infection Staddon had. He writes that because of his illness he found the work "physically painful to listen to" - a description some listeners will doubtless still find applicable. Despite its noisiness, however - and because of it - it stands out from the rest of the disc with its own 'punk' appeal, and Staddon is very enthusiastically applauded by the audience.
There are three works for soprano in the programme. Jay Capperauld takes a text of Ludwig Rellstab's, famously set by Schubert in his Schwanengesang, D.957: 'Aufenthalt', which Capperauld has given the curiously tautological title, Sojourn Aufenthalt. His treatment of it is powerful, melodic but darkly ominous, with some frightening crashing chords towards the end from pianist Theodoros Iosifidis, and it is well sung in reasonable German by Fiona Wilkie, who has an incredibly Wagnerian voice.
Soprano Jessica Leary's German, on the other hand, is pretty shabby, which surely reflects rather badly on her tutors. In Anna Shucksmith's Die Nachtblume - most famously set (as 'Die Nacht') by Hugo Wolf in his Eichendorff-Lieder - she mispronounces almost every '-ie-' as '-ei-', turning "wie die" ('as the') into the nonsensical "wei dei" and "Liebesklagen" ('heartache') into a word meaning something like "physical complaints". Her pronunciation and enunciation are sloppy throughout, although her voice sounds as though it could yet yield a career. The piano part is more successful, Shucksmith's song very much in the lieder tradition, but with some cool jazzy riffs indicating its post-modern ambient.
Lewis Murphy's Am Turme is an adventurously Schoenbergian setting of the poem by one of Germany's most important 19th century female poets, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Unfortunately the booklet gives only the conductor's name - not the singer's or the players'! Though the atonal idiom of the song may not be to everyone's taste, Murphy's piece is highly atmospheric and brimming with fine touches that bode well for his future.
Last but not least, Steve Forman is a well-known Los Angeles career percussionist who joined the RCS to focus on composition. His Gill's Delirium is another work about illness, "a quiet little song of someone's illusions and delusions". Forman's description of manic depression is itself painful to read, thanks to the cringe-inducing youth-parlance it is couched in, but the unusually-scored piece itself is fairly bright and upbeat, not to mention typically percussion- and rhythm-oriented.
Though these are all live recordings, sound quality is very good. Some of the tracks end with boisterous applause, but generally the audience is rather well behaved. The accompanying booklet has a couple of paragraphs of notes per item, although there is not necessarily much information in them. What there is is not always illuminating: "Timothy Miles is a composer from Nashua, New Hampshire, which is part of New England, which is in the United States"! There is nothing on any of the performers.
Overall, this is a disc that will appeal primarily to the students and teachers of the RCS, and their friends and families. On the other hand, no one interested in a career in composition or with a general interest in new music will come to any grief from acquiring it, and may well find themselves enjoying the whole programme.
One final question: with so much new music coming from the students of the RCS's Composition Department, why is this CD only fifty minutes long?
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Those interested in a career in composition or interested in new music will enjoying this programme.