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Matthew WHITESIDE (b. 1988)
Ulation [6:16]
Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass [7:22]
Solo for Viola d’amore and Electronics [11:26]
Dichroic Light [14:54]
Well, Well, Well [4:31]
Three Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Electronics [13:42]
The World in an Oyster, An Oyster in the World [5:57]
Quartet No. 3 [8:51]
Emma Lloyd (viola/viola d’amore)
Abby Hayward (cello)
Joanna Nicholson (bass clarinet)
The Robinson Panoramic Quartet
Red Note
Aurea Quartet
rec. St Bride’s Episcopal Church, Glasgow and Saint Philip’s Church, Dublin
No dates given.

Matthew Whiteside is a composer and producer originally from Northern Ireland currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Dichroic Light is his debut album, though he has written music for concerts, film and collaborative installations, with use of live electronics as one of his trademarks. This recording was made possible through a Quality Production award from Creative Scotland to compose the new Solo for viola d’amore, live electronics and motion sensor, and funding for this album.

With no booklet notes about the music on this release we are left guessing to a certain extent, though this can be a liberating factor. Ulation for viola and electronics is a fascinating piece, the lonely soloist separated from humanity in an isolation described by quietly nuanced sounds, the notes also transformed by a wire fence of filters and echoes which grow in intensity. There is something of the Morton Feldman in the opening to the Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass, but this promisingly poetic opening retains its static nature more through lack of direction than the creation of a particularly special atmosphere. I don’t mind works which explore restricted numbers of pitches, but these aren’t particularly inspiring. There is a kind of dreary procession going on but other than that I’m sure I must have missed the point somewhere. This quartettsatz is alas more of a quartettskizze than anything else. It needs vitamins.

The Solo for Viola d’amore and Electronics is one of the centrepieces for this album and, like Ulation, the instrument emerges as a singularity from within the black void of a deep acoustic. Mournful downward glissando gestures create a dolorous mood, and the electronics are restricted to some subtle phasing which can make the notes shimmer as if seen at a distance through intense heat. This effect is heightened at times to corrugate the notes beyond nature, but the overall effect is one of meditation – a Japanese stone garden whose raked ripples have been brought into sound.

The title track, Dichroic Light explores the deeper notes of the cello in the first of its three movements, the electronics creating a halo of acoustic elongation around the instrument which is either heavenly or nightmarish, depending on the inclination of your imagination. The second movement generates a texture around one note in a high register, a kind of slow musette which is concluded with violent gestures. The third movement returns us to the harmonic richness of the lower strings, from which a haunting melody emerges, sung as well as played. We are released from the rising intensity of this material in a single high note that reaches out to infinity, the note perhaps symbolically a semitone above that which opened the work.

I was delighted to see the involvement of innovative Scottish ensemble Red Note in this collection, and Well, Well, Well for alto flute, viola and double bass chugs along nicely in their expert performance. This is another one of those pieces which leaves one wondering what the point of it all is – its four and a half minute duration suggesting something which would either need to make a quick pop-song impact to make itself memorable or as a movement which needs support rather than a stand-alone piece. The piece has a folksy and a ritual feel, and I can imagine it being useful in the theatre or as part of something ceremonial.

Three Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Electronics makes expressive use of the instrument in the first piece, with a slow melodic line punctuated by staccato interjections and key sounds. The electronics create that vastness of acoustic and field of echoes which is Whiteside’s trademark in these works, the rich sonorities of the bass clarinet an excellent vehicle for sonic enhancement. The interruptions are more violent in the second piece, with extremes of dynamic and use of that gruff low range which bass clarinets do so well. Multiphonics emerge as a large part of the technical armoury in the third piece to round off an atmospheric trilogy. In a nice transition, the last note of this work introduces the opening tonality of The World in an Oyster, An Oyster in the World for violin, cello and piano, also with musicians from Red Note. This is another work which grows out of an ostinato single tonality, its heavy tread inviting funereal and processional associations. There comes a point when you wonder how much driech music you can stand emanating from one note, but from the point of view of an oyster this may be just the ticket. Sustained high string notes with no apparent function don’t really do it for me however.

Quartet No. 3 has the upper strings sliding around, a short-duration echo giving the notes a strange, icily desiccated glare. This first section could be a highly effective cinematic soundtrack, with plenty of suspense and horror overtones. Textures are created through players overlapping the same notes, heightening the intensity and generating an accompaniment for an impassioned solo line from the cello. The final section or coda develops again from more open sounds to a more intense close.

Matthew Whiteside is clearly a talented and creative person who is already doing well and no doubt has a bright future. I was asked to hand out advice I would however suggest a re-examination of the use of material and deeper exploration of its potential. Whiteside tends to hold onto his ideas without exploiting the full potential of the shapes and intervals used, so we end up with repetition of and variation on rather enigmatic tonal choices and nothing which flowers into something staggeringly breathtaking. With live electronic effects you can sometimes get away with more, but I would always argue that music which can more or less stand on its own without embellishment makes for greater substance when the live electronic layers are factored in. There are also more ways of generating intensity than increasing the rate at which notes are played, or raising their register. Climaxes made in this way rarely deliver.

Very well recorded, this CD is a worthwhile initiative and offers an intriguing glimpse into the avant-garde north of the border. Some information on the technical means used for these works and their background would have been useful, but the budget appears not to have stretched to a booklet or other space for notes. While not everything is equally successful these are all great performances, and there are intriguing sounds to be discovered.

Dominy Clements