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Alwynne PRITCHARD (b. 1968)
Rockaby
Loser for piano, voice and objects (2014) [9:28]
March, March, March for Navy band (2013) [5:41]
Decoy for ensemble and electronics (2004) [19:03]
Rockaby for orchestra and vocal performer (2016) [11:57]
Graffiti for percussion and electronics (2006) [13:49]
Glorvina for electronics (2012) [3:20]
Irene Electric for violin and tape (2013) [13:03]
rec. 2004-18
KAIROS 0015047KAI [76:00]

This is the first portrait album to be devoted to the composer (and sometime singer, curator, actor, radio presenter and agent provocateur) Alwynne Pritchard since ‘Invisible Cities’ was released by Metier in 2003 (review). I’m most familiar with her in her role as a presenter of Radio 3’s ever-changing modern music strands over the last two decades. Over the airwaves she has always struck me as fearless, evangelical, enthusiastic and warm. Thus having found the first fifteen minutes of this new Kairos disc challenging at best and rather cold and impenetrable at worst, I’m pleased to report that I’m glad I stuck with it, as the four big pieces here created a far more positive impression. A game of two halves, one might say.

In Loser, we hear cold, brittle dissonances from the piano. The piano lid being shut over a pedal. Silences. Whispers. An extended, pained howl. Some isolated, single notes, as if from a prepared piano. Some spoken German, at first communicated slowly, then more urgently. The Kairos booklet note (essentially some comments about Alwynne Pritchard’s works by the contemporary music writer Tim Rutherford-Johnson interspersed with excerpts from what appears to be an informal discussion between the two of them) informs us that these words are brief extracts from Der Untergeher (The Loser), a 1980s novel by Thomas Bernhard which concerns an imaginary encounter between two young piano students and Glenn Gould during a piano masterclass given by Vladimir Horowitz in Salzburg in 1953. I don’t want to spoil it for any potential readers, but it sounds extremely dark (- it has also recently been turned into a chamber opera by Bang on a Can stalwart David Lang). In any case the work alludes to Gould in its closing bars as we hear what appears to be a fractured Goldberg Variation accompanied by a battery-operated milk frother. Before that however, we hear the thud of an open bag of sand being knocked by the performer off the keyboard onto the floor, a skittering and tentative piano episode, yet more fraught verbal declamation, some dampened electronic pops, something that resembles radio interference, some piano harmonics. It is clear there is a theatrical element to much of Alwynne Pritchard’s output and that is evidently the case in Loser. Perhaps the visual element would help listeners like me make some sense of it all – the sounds themselves went right over my head. I felt perfectly cast adrift.

Militaristic drums launch March, March, March. Hootings and wailings via reeds and mouthpieces. A weird, looped ‘oompah’ rhythm. There are fanfare-like interjections and march clichés. Episodes which seem to be little canons (not in the 1812 sense) seem to contradict the rhythms imposed upon them. The composer explains in the booklet that she imagines the piece with a vocal element. She goes into great detail in describing it too – but it’s another concept that’s wasted upon the likes of me, alas. March, March, March may well be conveying some irony-laden political point or not, but it sounds chaotic and rather nihilistic to these ears. I wonder what the excellent Norwegian Naval Forces’ Band made of it – they have, after all been gamely embracing experimental music for years.

Having found these two pieces rather confrontational and impenetrable I was both surprised and reassured to discover that I enjoyed the remaining works on this packed album as much as I did. Of these Decoy, for ensemble and electronics, is both the oldest (from 2004) and the most extended. The note tells us little about the work other than that its form and pulse derive from a 6 x 6 magic square. This knowledge is unlikely to influence one’s appreciation of the piece either way. The ensemble here consists of three winds and three strings with percussion, but it frequently sounds larger. The stasis implied by the glassy, fragile sonic cloud at Decoy’s outset is punctuated by gently mysterious chimes from what sound like antique cymbals. The electronic sheen sometimes recalls the manipulations of Jonathan Harvey, in the way that acoustic instrumental lines are subtly woven into Decoy’s texture before gently fading. At one point delicate harmonics and overtones appear to materialise almost imperceptibly, before sustained notes gently rise and fall against an electronic halo. As the piece proceeds, the impact of the metallic chimes seem to intensify and distort – the clarity of the sound seems threatened by curious static effects. Roughly halfway along a more obviously acoustic episode acts as a preamble to the presence of imaginatively made resonances from tam-tams. The consequent soundscape subsequently disorients the listener, notably via an eerie series of slowly descending glissandi which seem synthetic but which are quite possibly drawn from the instruments themselves. Decoy thus forces the listener to consider the divide between the artificial and the real. I found Pritchard’s music in this piece projected a strange, sylvan beauty from first note to last. Decoy impresses still more with each repetition.

It's followed by the impressive Rockaby, a peculiar and discomfiting eleven minute work for a ‘performer’ (in this case the composer herself) and a big orchestra. There is an even more obvious visual/theatrical dimension to this work, as the ‘soloist’s’ role involves movement, and the management of a curious costume (it’s pictured in the booklet) created purely for Rockaby. To quote the description, it’s “…equal parts geisha, crazed steam-punk inventor and military commander – that is transformed throughout the course of the piece by way of zips, hidden panels and velcro strips.” Rockaby also requires the participation of two ‘foley’ (ie sound-effects) artists. It is evidently a challenge to picture this rather particular kind of performance, but the music itself is strangely beguiling. Quite apart from Pritchard’s delivery of the peculiar, hybrid text (this involves great, swooping vocalisations and exclamations, howling, whispering and deadpan speech) a creepy one-fingered piano part seems to ‘take a line for a walk’, and moves betwixt and between an orchestral landscape which never settles. But this is not an unattractive noise by any means – Pritchard seems to have a wonderfully instinctive grasp of orchestral sound. Clouds of string texture hang in the air and seem simultaneously iridescent and hazy, while Pritchard’s deployment of harp and percussion is masterly, and the constant fiddling about with the costume creates a bizarrely apt parallel sonic universe. Pritchard’s vocalisations are intoxicating and range from magnificently controlled glissandi to the crystalline delivery of words which seem absolutely material to the success of the piece, although frankly I have not the faintest idea of why this is so. After playing Rockaby once I wondered whether I had been taken in by ‘the shock of the new’, but once more I was relieved to find that again the piece yields more on each repetition. I have no idea how or why Rockaby works, but work it does. I’d certainly like to experience it live; judging by the enthusiastic applause from the City Halls faithful it certainly went down well with the discerning, if modest Glasgow audience.

Graffiti is an impressive essay for percussion (here played by the incredibly focused Christian Dierstein). In this piece of contrasts, Pritchard manages to find telling juxtapositions between the aridity and resonance of various drums and cymbals, as well as unleashing the tension implied between periods of frantic instrumental activity and reflective episodes of electronically enhanced stasis. The ominous knocking sounds that occur at around the 4:00 mark intensify, speed up and unleash a fascinating collage of noise which sounds like amplified primeval sludge (an episode which inevitably brought to mind Quatermass, early Doctor Who and the immortal Delia Derbyshire). From 7:00 low drum sounds predominate before seemingly dissolving into amplified ‘plops’. Other effects suggest clanging railings and gentle gamelan. Graffiti seems to be a score that’s rich in allusion and will inevitably trigger a wealth of unconscious association in the listener. No effect seems wasted or superfluous.

I have to admit I didn’t really ‘get’ the brief, purely electronic interlude entitled Glorvina, a kind of installation piece written for the Cage centenary in 2012; it does features some intriguing effects and while one can overthink such music I felt a bit lost in that particular labyrinth, but Irene Electric, the 2013 work which concludes this portrait disc seems very impressive. Strangely distorted individual voices populate an odd synthetic backcloth. Somehere in the mix is Victoria Johnson’s solo violin. Pritchard builds a continuous texture which resembles a perpetually boiling, whistling kettle. A ghostly drone materialises above this at 3:20 and seems to fade in and out. After punctuating, deafening silences, and what sounds like the swish of a lit match, a lone, youthful, Filipino voice intones the enigmatic phrase “green plants intertwine in a complicated way”. Further voices subsequently emerge in a spoken voice counterpoint worthy of one of Glenn Gould’s voice documentary pieces (such as ‘The Idea of North’). The violinist repeatedly produces a single, plucked tone which ‘becomes’ an Oriental instrument, a biwa perhaps? There is something captivating about the hubbub created by the voices of these young Filipinos in this context. Irene Electric, partly inspired by the eponymous 2011 hurricane which Pritchard experienced in New York, and partly by an educational residency she undertook in the Philippines soon afterwards, is an enchantment.

It’s most unusual for this particular listener to feel so disarmed and unmoved by the first two works on a single composer portrait disc, and then be blown away by most of the music which follows, but that’s exactly what happened here. I must admit that repetitions of both Loser and March, March, March have thus far failed to unlock their subtleties, but the quality of Alwynne Pritchard’s music shines throughout the rest of the disc to such a degree that I feel I should keep persevering with each of them. Given that the pieces on this compilation were all recorded at different times by different performers in different locations the consistency of sound Kairos have achieved is most impressive. In so far as I can determine, all the performances ooze commitment. While the documentation is a good read as far as it goes, there is a much deeper focus on a couple of the pieces here at the expense of the other five.

It is revealing that Pritchard lives and works in Bergen – a Kairos release (as opposed to one say, on NMC) suggests that she enjoys a higher profile as a composer elsewhere in Europe than she does in her homeland. On the basis of much of the music on this challenging and often confrontational disc, that state of affairs urgently needs to be rectified.

Richard Hanlon

Performance and Recording details
Loser: Klaus Steffes-Holländer (piano/voice/objects); rec September 2016 at Hans Rosbaud Studio SWR, Baden-Baden, Germany
March, March, March: Norwegian Navy Band / Bjarte Engeset; rec November 2018 at Bergenhus Fortress Music Hall, Bergen, Norway
Decoy: ensemble recherche/ SWR Experimentalstudio; rec October 2004 at Gewerbliche Schulen, Donaueschingen, Germany
Rockaby: Alwynne Pritchard (voice/movement), BBC Scottish SO/ Ilan Volkov; rec May 2016 at City Halls, Glasgow, Scotland
Graffiti: Christian Dierstein (percussion), SWR Experimentalstudio; rec January 2007 at Heinrich-Strobel-Saal, SWR Studio, Freiburg, Germany
Glorvina: rec 2012 at SWR Experimentalstudio , SWR Studio, Freiburg, GermanyChildren from the Phillipine High School for the Arts
Irene Electric: Victoria Johnson (violin), Thorolf Thuestad (electronics), Children from the Philippine High School for the Arts (voices); rec 2012-2013 at Østre, Bergen, Norway

 



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