Hywel Davies is one of those composers that critics at the trendy end of the spectrum like to get excited about, making breathless references to the fusing of genres, sonic journeys and how Davies resists classification. This is not because he writes great or even memorable music - he infrequently does either - but because he is also a "sonic installation artist", and thus has the permanent ear of the cultural illuminati. Davies's website reports matter-of-factly that he is "currently at work on a permanent sound installation for the remodelled Sevenoaks Library and Arts Gallery and a piece for the Arts Council England telephone system."
On the face of it, this new album promises more than his 'sonic collage' first ('Natural Language' or 'Waldscenen', ArtSway HDCD01), with titles and instrumentation that seem to lean towards more orthodox art music: three 'Duos' for violin and cello, an 'Albumleaf' and 'Sonatas' for piano, a 'Nocturne' for flutes.
Yet the similarities with tradition or modernity are for the most part illusory. In their stead, an hour of trundling minimalism, repetitive and conceptually naive to the point of banality. This is music for the lazy listener of the post-modern age, for those who cannot concentrate for longer than a pop song or soundbite. The melodies Davies employs are often 'pretty' and his rhythms hypnotising. Yet only rarely does he do anything with them besides simple recycling and scrannel harmonic sidling.
The Piano Pieces are not unlike those by Graham Fitkin, whilst also invoking, along with certain other tracks, Simeon ten Holt's notorious - and notoriously banal - Canto Ostinato. Piano Piece no.17 is a meeting between Bach and Pärt that Bach never wanted. In Variations Davies seems to mock the listener's expectations, yet he is serious: using a mundane phrase "in C", he "tried to figure out what to do with white-note music". Bow Flurry is a child-like dialogue between a crystal-clear glockenspiel and - for some reason - muffled pianos separated into two distinct audio channels. There is an aleatoric aspect to this already uninspired piece that renders it irritating rather than interesting.
In fairness, there are some signs of inspiration. The aleatoric Cold in the Earth for four cellos is icy and eerie. Apostrophe for solo flute is tuneful and atmospheric in that French impressionist way, and has enough character to warrant inclusion in a flautist's repertory. The three Duos too are suggestive - seeming to be a few bars taken from much larger works that really do have something interesting to say. Only: they are 'complete'.
The last track, inscrutably titled Apus Apus Part 2, also for flutes, is intriguing in its strangeness. The work is punctuated by deep breaths from at least two flautists, who seem to be coming up for air. The sound, initially, is that of a distant flock of gulls over a trawler, but this is temporarily drowned out by the deep drones of the flute equivalent of giant bees. Suddenly these vanish and the work finishes more or less as it started.
As far as elucidation is concerned, the listener is left high and dry: despite the high retail price, no booklet comes with the CD. Instead, a few lines from the composer are printed straight onto the glossy card of the digipak-style case. These are hardly enlightening: "Piano Piece No.23 (and 19) has its roots in me crashing around on the piano." Sound quality is good though, and the various performers all give as much as they can to music that must at times insult their intelligence as much as the listener's. On the other hand, the following tracks are worth consideration for downloading: Descent, Cold in the Earth, Apostrophe, Apus Apus Part 2. Music fashionistas can go ahead and order the whole album.
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