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Edward COWIE (b. 1943)
String Quartet No.1 ‘Dungeness Nocturnes’ (1969) [14:17]
String Quartet No.2 ‘Crystal Dances’ (1977) [17:48]
GAD for solo violin (2017) [16:37]
String Quartet No.6 ‘The Four Winds’ (2012) [22:50]
rec. 2017-19, All Saints’ Church, Finchley & St Michael’s Church, Highbury, London MÉTIERMSV28603 [71:32]
There are plenty of biographical details about Edward Cowie available on the Internet. However, a few pointers may help the listener. Cowie was born in Birmingham on 17 August 1943. He began to compose at the early age of 11 years. Later, he had composition lessons with Alexander Goehr and Witold Lutoslawski as well encouragement from Michael Tippett. Cowie has had several academic postings including lectureships at Lancaster, Kassel and Wollongong Universities. In 1995 he returned to England after residence in Australia. Here he has had many musical appointments, collaborations and commissions. His non-musical interests include painting and ornithology.
The composer’s catalogue is wide-ranging and includes major orchestral and choral works, a huge amount of chamber music as well as an opera. His musical style creates a satisfactory equilibrium between an acknowledgement of past influences such as Bach, Debussy, and Messiaen, along with an ever-developing exploration of new musical forms and techniques. His music is regularly inspired by paintings (often his own) and the structural aspects of physical science. I am grateful to the composer for some elucidations and explanations of this music, and his permission for me to include them in my script.
In the opening paragraphs of the liner notes, Cowie outlines his musical aesthetic in six points. Three of them stand out (to me). In this philosophy he is inspired more by natural history than musical history, secondly, drawing/painting before composing helps him to create the ‘soundscape’ of his music and finally for him ‘sound, colour, order, disorder, shape, pattern, form are all connected in a kind of grand unification.’ The listener does not need to subscribe to this manifesto to enjoy these quartets. However, these pointers may help to form a working understanding of the music. From a technical point of view, Edward Cowie was a proficient violinist before seriously injuring his left hand during a University rugger match. That said, he had the experience of playing many of the great masterworks of the string ensemble repertoire. It has left an indelible impression on his compositional technique.
The opening work on this CD is the earliest. It was composed in 1969 when the composer was in his mid-twenties. The composer explained that this was his third attempt at writing a String Quartet. Interestingly, this piece is not featured in the ‘works list’ included in Anthony Burton’s 1982 portrait of the composer (Musical Times February 1982). Cowie explained the reason for this. He had kept the work under wraps: it had not been published at that time. Last year (2019) he ‘re fell in love with it.’ This Quartet is subtitled ‘Dungeness Nocturnes’. It is not ‘descriptive’ or even ‘impressionistic’ music but draws its essence from nature rather than pictorial representation. That said, anyone who has explored Dungeness by day or evening will relate to this music. It seems to be streaked with sunlight, seafoam and breeze. The contrasts of wide-open spaces, the nuclear reactor and the intrusive wind turbines all seem to be included in this musical response. Despite its ambiguous relationship to modernity, this Quartet is perfectly approachable. I think that the technical strategy underpinning of this work is Cowie’s rejection of the strictures of serialism. The composer explained to me that he refused ‘to see dissonance or consonance as distant cousins but instead as part of a palette of sound which should be found through sensing and emotion and not systematisation.’ The formal structure of both the 1st and the 2nd Quartet would seem to be based on what Cowie has called a ‘tapestry of ideas and episodic variation’ like that used by the composer’s ‘greatest quartet love – Haydn.’
The String Quartet No.2 was composed in 1977. It is subtitled ‘Crystal Dances.’ The idea for this work arose when Cowie was working as a physicist at university. He told me that he had ‘always been interested in the structural and dynamic properties of crystals, especially when quantum mechanics could set out some of the secret glories of chance combined with geometry.’ It is not a concept that I understand in the least, but the important thing is to realise that much of Cowie’s music results from a combination of various seemingly disparate natural or behavioural states. The present String Quartet No.2 ‘delves deeply into ultra-structures in states of growth and change’ in this case to the ‘crystal.’ This work’s progress could be said to represent a ‘time lapse film of crystal formation when a kind of primal choreography seems to set in...’ Musically, it is deliberately fragmented and seems to be throwing material around in a haphazard manner. But this may just be the lively underlying ‘dance’. We all know that this activity results in the perfectly formed crystal. Eventually, the String Quartet finishes with a well-deserved sense of repose, but with ever-bubbling movement just below the surface.
GAD is a ‘medical’ work: I had never heard of this acronym before. For the uninitiated, like myself, it means ‘generalised anxiety disorder.’ For sufferers, this generates feelings like stress, panic and worry which are ‘longer lasting, more extreme and far harder to control.’ Edward Cowie explained to me that anyone suffering from it will know what a battle it is to create and think clearly during bouts of severe anxiety. Peter Sheppard Skærved had recently (2016) asked for a large-scale solo violin work to partner one of J.S. Bach’ immortal Partitas. The genesis of Cowie’s response was inspired by the ‘marvels of counterpoint and decoration and the great Bach[ian] architecture of harmony.’ Unfortunately, work on the piece was nearly halted by an onset of an episode of GAD. Fortunately, it did not stop composition as should almost certainly have been the case. Cowie writes that the result of this struggle resulted in music that ‘hunts for calm’ but is ‘thrown about like a feather in the wind.’ The music sounds as if it might suffer a nervous breakdown and subsequent collapse at any stage, but miraculously it doesn’t. This is (almost by definition) a strangely disjointed work, that displays struggle, which is hardly surprising, but also determination and final resolution. The musical language of this music is a diverse as its emotional background.
Habitat, rather than landscape, underpins the sentiment of String Quartet No.6 ‘Four Winds’. Edward Cowie has always been inspired by the beautiful reaches of Morecambe Bay off Lancashire and Westmorland. Now, he has not stated that this is the actual source of inspiration for this work, but it is certainly a good possibility. Cowie has regularly painted this part of the world, with his extraordinary Concerto for Orchestra partially inspired by the Bay’s tidal patterns. The final movement of his large Gesangbuch for mixed chorus and 13 instruments (1975-6) was named after the village of Hest Bank which lies on the shore of Morecambe Bay. Anyone who has explored this part of England will know about the relentless winds that can engulf this land and seascape. It can blow from every direction at once! Nevertheless, this is not a descriptive piece about weather or topography but reflects the ‘physical as well as metaphysical properties of nature in action.’ Despite this philosophical underpinning, this Quartet does make me think of Morecambe Bay. And that is no bad thing. The structural principle is one of monothematic variation. Again, without the score I can only surmise that this means that the ‘melody’ persists through each section and the ‘variation’ takes place around the theme rather than of it. The four movements are titled after the ‘West’, ‘North’, ‘East’ and ‘South’ winds in that order. This is my favourite work on this remarkable new CD.
The performances of these four works are ideal. Clearly, I have nothing to compare them with, nor have I seen the scores. But every bar suggests that violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and the other members of the Kreutzer Quartet have a great empathy with this music and create a magical and engrossing performance.
The liner notes are impressive. They begin with a presentation of Edward Cowie’s musical aesthetic and includes a discussion about some of the difficulties he has encountered with the reception of his work. This section includes his six-point ‘mind-sense map’ alluded to above. There follows some brief notes about each composition. Peter Sheppard Skærved then presents a short essay about ‘Playing Edward Cowie: a player-collaborator’s point of view.’ The usual composer and ensemble biographies follow. The most interesting thing about this booklet is the inclusion of the preparatory paintings Cowie made before starting work on his quartets. They are excellent and would grace any art collection. My favourite picture is of a fishing boat at Dungeness. Finally, there are a couple of photos of the composer in action: birdwatching on the Farne Islands and score writing at his music desk.
I understand that this is effectively volume 2 of Edward Cowie’s cycle of string quartets. In 2016 the NMC label released a CD of the Quartets Nos. 3, 4 and 5 (D222) performed by the Kreutzer Quartet. I have not had the pleasure of hearing this disc but it has been reviewed on these pages by Hubert Culot. I understand that Cowie has three more String Quartets awaiting performance and recording.
This present CD part of an ongoing evaluation of Edward Cowie’s music that has been growing in the past few years. The composer tells me that this reassessment is planned to continue: the Concerto for Orchestra and the Clarinet Concerto No.2 are due to be released later this year. Certainly, there are many tantalising works in his catalogue that seem to cry out for recording. Let us hope that this is really an ongoing project. John France
Performers: Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin), Clifton Harrison (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)