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Ned BIGHAM (b. 1966)
Archipelago Dances, Set 1 [22:09]
Two Nightscapes [10:21]
Archipelago Dances, Set 2 [13:30]
Staffa [10:59]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Jean-Claude Picard
rec. 2016/17, RSNO Centre, Glasgow
ARUNA CD002 [57:01]

Staffa is the second Aruna album to feature the orchestral music of Ned Bigham. The fact that it has hit the Classical Charts (just like its predecessor Calebra on ARUNACD001) suggests that it is receiving airplay somewhere and that people like what they hear. Bigham describes himself on his own Web site as “an eclectic composer whose career encompasses orchestral, choral, chamber and electronica”. In fact, that summary barely scratches the surface. Bigham studied music at Balliol College, Oxford with Daryl Runswick among others during the 1980s. He became a session drummer, and worked with influential Swedish singer and rapper Neneh Cherry. He subsequently co-formed the pioneering acid-jazz outfit D-Influence and has since performed in and collaborated on many projects across a plethora of genres. There is a truly impressive diversity here. While this may seem a relatively unconventional apprenticeship for composing in broadly classical forms, he is far from unique. Others who have successfully crossed similar rubicons later in their careers include the late Jon Lord, Craig Armstrong, the ECM jazz guitarist Terje Rydpal, even Estonian symphonist Erkki-Sven Tüür. The days when critics were sniffy about these kind of backgrounds are long gone, thankfully. On any level Ned Bigham’s orchestral work is appealing to the ear, deftly sculpted and rich in topographical and philosophical suggestion.

The titles of the pieces on this album betray the fact that landscape (both real and imagined) provides considerable inspiration for Bigham; this was also the case in the first disc. Essentially the present issue consists of eight separate pieces, three and two respectively in the two sets of Archipelago Dances, seemingly inspired by “islands of the mind”, albeit named after real places. Staffa itself was inspired by Bigham’s own response to visiting the island of (Mendelssohn’s) Fingal’s Cave. At just shy of eleven minutes it is the longest work on this CD, thus what we have here is a collection of short orchestral tone-poems and/or dances.

The disc opens with the first set of Archipelago Dances, musical travelogues to groups of islands of the imagination. All are based on dance forms, although these are not necessarily universally known. For example the opening Halmahera is forged from a dance called the Bachata, apparently native to the Dominican Republic. Bigham is clearly an accomplished arranger. The orchestration of all these pieces is skilled and most alluring. Halmahera involves two pianos interweaving in a kind of playful canon. Bigham cites the Cornish composer Graham Fitkin as an influence, but I detect a greater transitional variety throughout Bigham’s music—indeed Joby Talbot, another master orchestrator with a “chamber-pop” background came to my mind at different points on this disc. While Halmahera is upbeat, Kyra is slower, a piece in pavane form which builds up quite beautifully. The trilogy is completed by Reao, another slow-burner of a piece which draws on another Central American dance form, the plena of Puerto Rico.

Two dances comprise the second set. Tegua is a delightful polka which seems to incorporate Scottish fiddle music. Galila is an estampie featuring sinuous writing for high woodwind, and an unexpectedly abrupt ending.

While these pieces are bathed in vibrant hues (Bigham obviously likes harp, celesta and piano sounds, but uses them with tact and restraint) there is nothing specifically “Latin” about them, despite their sources. They plumb no great depths, nor is that their intention. To quote Bigham himself: “As a composer I am aiming to transport the listener into a different world and the islands in these titles are intended as metaphors for that escape. Visiting a small or exotic island, whether real or imaginary (and all the titles are in fact real islands), can offer a kind of isolation from the outside world, my intention is that the music might work in a similar way.” It is difficult for a listener to argue that Bigham has not convincingly achieved these goals.

The Two Nightscapes strike me as more abstract. They are crepuscular for sure but the orchestration is cooler in both movements, Lullaby and Serenade. If the writing is still accomplished, it is a little more monochrome. The Nightscapes are more elusive to my ears than the Dances; perhaps that is the point. I thought they meandered a bit at first hearing but found them more convincing second time around.

The collection ends with Staffa, which was written in collaboration with the visual artist Gerry Fox. Inspired by Mendelssohn’s visit to Fingal’s Cave in 1829, the music (which sounds nothing like Mendelssohn) was designed to be performed by an orchestra situated beneath three large screens. Each screen displays filmed impressions of Staffa, both aerial views of the island and shots taken by drones from deep within the cave. While the work was premiered in this form to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2017, the disc, alas, only presents the music. Nevertheless, I would argue that Bigham’s music is sufficiently evocative—without ever descending into cliché—to enable the listener to make the trip without the aid of the guidebook, as it were.

The agitated brass march with which the work commences bracingly epitomises the grandeur of the sea and the island. It acts as a musical landmark which recurs twice more and enables the listener to re-establish their bearings. Bigham’s ear for colour works its magic again in Staffa. Here the harps and celesta enable us to “feel” the play of light upon water and rock. His use of these ethereal timbres occasionally recalls William Mathias in seascape mode. The use of variation throughout successfully evokes the changes in shade and sound experienced on the island as the day proceeds. Staffa is a splendid piece which instantly conveys both the marine spirit and the enchantment of Fingal’s Cave.

The disc as a whole, then, introduces a really enjoyable sequence of short works which provoke an authentic sense of island experience. On these two Aruna albums, Ned Bigham has quietly established himself as a master of the short orchestral tone poem. I understand the composer is currently working and a variety of orchestral, chamber and choral commissions. I would be most interested to hear him attempt a more extended form.

Richard Hanlon

 




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