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Roger REYNOLDS (b. 1934) Aspiration Shifting/Drifting, for violin and real-time algorithmic transformation (2015) [23:36] imagE/violin imAge/violin, for solo violin (2015) [18:26] Aspiration, for solo violin and chamber orchestra (2004/2005) [29:47] Kokoro, for solo violin (1991/1992) [25:07]
Irvine Arditti (violin)
Paul Hembree (computer musician)
rec. 2015, Theater of the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information Technologies & Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, UC San Diego; Citrus College, Los Angeles KAIROS 0015051KAI [42:04 + 54:55]
Every so often a disc of Roger Reynolds’s music materialises. He is an 84-year-old American whose name and reputation carry considerable weight in contemporary music circles, although that fact is rather belied by a cursory glance at the catalogues. I was first alerted to him by the release nearly two decades ago of a Na´ve Montaigne twofer (MO 782083 – nla) containing music for solo strings, quartet and electronics, inevitably played by the Arditti Quartet and its individual members. Among other works, it contained the extraordinary, densely labyrinthine Ariadne’s Thread with its electroacoustic component and the strikingly titled Focus a beam, emptied of thinking, outward…. an intriguing work for solo cello, memorably delivered by Rohan de Saram. It also featured Irvine Arditti’s first recorded thoughts on the stunning Kokoro for solo violin, which is also included in this new Kairos set. Since then I have heard Reynolds’s other pieces for a variety of solos and ensembles. I have always been struck by the richly communicative objectivity, which may at once seem like an oxymoron, but the phrase characterises a composer whose music is at once characterised by rigorous craftsmanship and palpable humanity.
In fact, it is interesting, because while Arditti’s performance of Kokoro on the new issue is recognisably of the same piece as the one on that Na´ve album, it seems to be a very different reading: slower and softer, more holistic and somewhat less fragmentary, lived-in perhaps? Indeed, each of Kokoro’s twelve sections are separately tracked on the original disc. Reynolds states that the initial impulse for the piece is a footnote from D. T. Suzuki’s book ‘Zen and Japanese Culture’. It distinguishes the many different meanings of the Japanese word Kokoro, which essentially, as I understand it, pertains to our emotions: to heart, spirit, mind, soul or feeling. Moreover, there is an extended discussion reproduced in the booklet. It reveals that, despite many performances of Kokoro over the last quarter of a century, Arditti only recently experienced a transformative moment in terms of his interpretation on receiving a response from the composer to a tape of a recent live account. The piece is elegantly conceived, and suffused with perceptible mutual affection between composer and performer and back. Repeated hearings gradually assuage any forbidding elements in the music. The fine recording provides Arditti with space in which his instrument can more expressively breathe, a quality that is perhaps less apparent on the older disc.
The other solo piece wriiten expressly for Arditti’s here is in fact a diptych; ‘imagE/violin imAge/violin’ is one of a series of similarly named solo pieces for different instruments – siblings include similar pairs of works for flute, viola, cello, double-bass, piano and guitar. The capital E represents the music’s ‘expressive and evocative’ sonic qualities, and the A its ‘articulate and assertive’ ones. Again Reynolds’s material has been inspired by his 35-year friendship with the violinist, though I would baulk at describing it as a ‘character portrait’. Both elements strike me as rather jagged and not a little confrontational at times, though the elegance of Reynolds’s superb writing is still very apparent. I found the two elements of the piece rather more challenging than Kokoro, although it is nothing if not a primer of Arditti’s phenomenal technical vocabulary.
Impressive and absorbing as the solo pieces are, I am more instinctively drawn to the two couplings here, both of which, in their rather unique ways, have the spirit, if not the letter, of the violin concerto about them. While Aspiration bears the gait of a conventional concerto with its accompanying fourteen-piece ensemble, the haunting Shifting/Drifting features the accompaniment of what Reynolds describes as ‘real-time algorithmic transformation’. Over the years Reynolds has increasingly been seen as one of the pioneers in the use of advanced computer technology in his composition. Indeed, his work at the University of California in San Diego has seen it become established as something of the American IRCAM. In the case of Shifting/Drifting, Reynolds has enlisted the help of long-time collaborator and ‘computer musician’ extraordinaire Paul Hembree in the preparation on the accompaniment. Given its dependence on Arditti’s live performance and the use of algorithms, it will presumably vary in every account. Investigating the details of this piece on Reynolds’s well- maintained and comprehensive website, one notes that many of his pieces require the use of a ‘Technical software manual’ which the composer has co-authored with Hembree and Jaime Oliver. One assumes this document requires regular overhaul. Arditti weaves a densely textured labyrinth of sound throughout the 23 minutes of Shifting/Drifting, its languorous and fragile web of melody fractured by moments of angularity and brittleness, while the mysterious, elusive accompaniment is at once eerie and hallucinatory.
Arditti and Reynolds first met in Huddersfield (where else!?) back in 1982 for a Xenakis recital at the contemporary music festival there. I made my first visit a year later and recall the Arditti Quartet’s charged UK premiere of Tetras (a game-changer for me). Xenakis seems to have been a life-long inspiration for both of these musicians. It is the tape part of his massive ensemble work Kraanerg that Hembree’s extraordinary accompaniment occasionally brings to mind (in terms of its atmosphere, at least), although there is a wonderfully clean, surface sheen to Hembree’s sonics which trumps Kraanerg’s somewhat (alas) outdated technology. Shifting/Drifting, absorbing collaboration between three master creators, exudes virtuosity, sensitivity and good taste.
The half-hour concerto Aspiration is also deeply impressive. Reynolds draws some ravishing colours and textures from his modest band. The composer reflects in the booklet about the title, which he saw (and still sees) at the work’s conception as an ‘inevitability’, a subconscious consequence perhaps of his view that Irvine Arditti constantly takes up repertoire that at times seems unplayable, but has always managed to find a way through, “….dedicated as he is…” as Reynolds states “…to ideal outcomes.” As it is, Aspiration is a compelling and imaginatively coloured work, at times mild and undemanding (in listening terms) compared to much of this singular violinist’s repertoire. But then it seems to explode into more confrontational gestures when the listener’s guard is down. The structure of the piece alternates orchestral content with or without the soloist and cadenza-like episodes. Again, elegance and formal balance are the watchwords in a work which occasionally yields to spikiness but is consistently attractive and alluring. The ensemble inauthentica provide fastidiously prepared and committed accompaniment. Kairos’s recording wants for nothing.
I have previously referred in these pages to my long-standing admiration of the Arditti Quartet (in its various manifestations over the years). I am pleased to be able to discuss a release that features its humane and generous founder in demanding, solo fare. These two discs also provide an opportunity to get become better acquainted with an influential compositional voice who is perhaps not nearly as well known on this side of the Atlantic as he should be. Big kudos to Kairos for their presentation and production, not least for the extensive notes, which consist in the main of the transcript of a compelling conversation between Arditti and Reynolds, moderated by the inauthentica ensemble’s lucid and eminently sensible conductor Mark Menzies. It complements a really important release which merits the widest currency.