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Ondřej ADÁMEK (b1979)
Sinuous Voices for ensemble (2004) [15:55]
Conséquences particulièrement blanches et noires concerto for airmachine and ensemble
(2016) [21:46]
Ça tourne ça bloque for ensemble and electronics (2007-08) [18:10]
Roméo Monteiro (airmachine)
Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain/Daniel Kawka, Ondřej Adámek
rec 2017, Théâtre Jean Dasté, Rive-de-Gier, France
AEON AECD1858 [55:55]

The three pieces on this album offer up some of the strangest, ‘out-there’ sounds one is ever likely to hear played by conventional instruments. Their composer, Ondřej Adámek is a 39 year old native of Prague. I’ve seen his name on concert schedules before, but this is my first encounter with his music. As far as I can make out his name appears on the odd Neos Donaueschingen Festival compilation, while Wergo have apparently issued a Portrait CD and DVD, but otherwise I can find no further entries in the catalogue. I suspect (and hope) that may be about to change. For apart from being original, this music has beauty, wit, a beat, distinctive colours and textures, open-heartedness, unexpected melodic flair and unique charm. It’s a compelling listening experience and some of Adámek’s adaptations of existing instruments and inventions of new ones suggest a theatrical element to his work, a thought that’s confirmed by a filmed performance of the “Airmachine” concerto (there is a link later in the review)

Sinuous Voices begins with airy, breathy sounds, punctuated by strange pizzicato strummings enhanced by wide vibrato. The conceit behind this work is that essentially Adamek is attempting to capture the sound of groups of people speaking, singing, or vocalising in purely instrumental terms. In the first section of this work, a prayer intoned by women in an old Bohemian church is ‘transcribed’ (probably not the right word, this isn’t literal, but alliterative) for the string group. The winds are almost inaudible at first but they become more perceptible and represent the resonance of this ecclesiastical acoustic to the point where the space absorbs the voices (strings), and it becomes difficult to discern which is which. The next sections apply similar techniques to a New Caledonian lullaby and the hoarse vocalisations of an elderly woman. These source materials are not detectable as such but they do throw up sequences of extraordinary, unfettered sound which teems with inference. Fragments of violent rhythm puncture the weird textures. The breathing sounds combine towards the works conclusion with ominous, regular knocking gestures. It is not easy to describe this music. Much of it is quiet; superficially Sciarrino might be seen by some listeners as a point of reference. But then a madcap, repressed violence returns and that comparison is past. The piece suddenly disintegrates. Sinuous Voices is a haunting, sometimes disturbing work. It coheres wonderfully and provides a not-too-bracing introduction to Adámek’s unique sound world.

The next work is a concerto. Sort of. Adámek tells us that he spent some time at the beginning of the decade studying the sonic properties of vacuum cleaners with a view to creating an instrument that could get closer to the actual essence of human breath than traditional wind and brass. Thus the ‘Airmachine’ was born. It is really hard to describe this thing so let me steal the composer’s own words from the note:
“The Airmachine is capable of very great contrasts in terms of dynamics and colours. Very sonorous instruments (such as aerophones with a membrane made from latex balloons) whose power rivals that of a brass ensemble, can be connected. Inversely (sic) one can plug in instruments of great softness. (It) is capable of quite precise articulation, short and extremely fast, whilst remaining human….”
The conductor of these works, Daniel Kawka has also contributed a brief note (some of which I fear suffers in its English translation) in which he states (referring to the concerto)
“ …the sound of the orchestra is an Airmachine in turn , and we do not know what is imitating what….”
The opening breathy rhythms in Conséquences particulièrement blanches et noires suggest an old steam train resting up after a long journey. These inhalations and exhalations are punctuated by ratchet-like percussion sounds. While this all seems very strange, eventually other instruments join in and initially, to confirm Kawka’s comments, it’s really difficult to work out who’s playing what. The blowings, scrapings, hootings and howlings become more and more agitated. Brass instruments sound like carhorns, weird harp, piano and percussion gestures launch a section which becomes rather abrasive in tone. If all this sounds anarchic and unformed it is the opposite. The entire structure seems tightly controlled, even logical. After this fast section, the sounds dissolve into otherworldly hallucinatory harmonics (at times recalling the ocarinas in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto). The composer describes this as a ternary dance which leads into a rapid collage of ever more mechanical wind type noises (more car horns – Ligeti again?). There are elusive, peculiar tunes here. At one point a Latin dance rhythm appears to emerge as if from nowhere. This chaotic music eventually tires itself out into an exhausted stasis. It’s an absolutely exhilarating work. A performance of the whole concerto with these performers can be seen here.

Even weirder, but paradoxically more approachable is Ça tourne ça bloque for ensemble and electronics. This was inspired by a visit the composer made to the Japanese city of Kyoto. It starts with an unforgettable effect – an electronic jingle (sounding not unlike a musical box) accompanied by a tape loop of a shop assistant welcoming customers into her shop. Adámek was very taken with a friend’s observation that Japanese retail assistants’ greetings are akin to Pavlovian stimulus-response bonds, and the composer delights in mischievously pointing up this kind of roboticism, a theme which underscores the whole work. In an echo of Sinuous Voices, the instruments here impersonate the human voices in a much more literal almost Reichian way. This opening section gives way to a slower, eerier episode linking to the second movement, which riffs on the rapid-speaking voice of another (Japanese) friend of the composer. The finale synthesises another friend’s (spoken) thoughts on robots with sounds from a Kyoto Buddhist temple. Adámek is extremely skilled at distilling the melodic shapes of the spoken human voice and these are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of this vibrant, directly communicative and witty piece.

As a new music buff I suppose it’s easy to get carried away and hyperbolise but I was deeply impressed with all three of these works, not least with the hypnotically alluring sounds Adámek draws from his chosen instrumental combinations. It’s abundantly clear from Daniel Kawka’s comments in the notes that he, for one, is completely convinced by the composer’s ideas and techniques; he leads viscerally energetic performances from the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, and the percussionist Roméo Monteiro who demonstrates apparent mastery of the Airmachine. The recording is a model of clarity – if it seems a little dry at the outset this is more to do with the instrumental effects Adámek is seeking. The sound soon fills out. I hope readers will sample the film clip and give it a few minutes at least; Adámek’s sound world truly creeps up on one and I suspect many will want to acquire this captivating introduction to his art.

Richard Hanlon


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