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Ed HUGHES (b. 1968)
Time, Space and Change
Cuckmere: A Portrait (2016-18) [30:31]
Media Vita (1991) [10:34]
Sinfonia (2018) [30:23]
Orchestra of Sound and Light/Ed Hughes (Cuckmere)
New Music Players Piano Trio (Media Vita)
New Music Players/Nicholas Smith (Sinfonia)
rec. 2018, Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, University of Sussex; The Warehouse, Theed Street, London
MÉTIER MSV28597 [71:35]

The opening work on this CD is superb. Cuckmere: A Portrait (2016-2018) was originally conceived as a score to accompany a film depicting ‘a year in the life of the River Cuckmere and Haven in Sussex’. This richly diverse landscape lies in a flood plain (fortunately at present undeveloped); the river wends its way towards the iconic Seven Sisters and then out into the English Channel. The liner notes say that this area has inspired many artists, including the great Eric Ravilious.

Ed Hughes has explained that this score is all about movement: ‘movement across a landscape, movement within the landscape and movement that is the unstoppable flow of the river, the passage of time and the changing of seasons’. Into all this activity, a few moments of perfect peace interpose themselves. There are eight movements or sections. This represents the four seasons (successively autumn, winter, spring and high summer), plus an opening prelude and three interludes. This music reminds me of the old Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who wisely said that we cannot step in the same river twice’ (Frag.41). Hughes’s score reflects the old English meaning of Cuckmere, which is quite simply ‘ever-flowing’. The sound world here is stunning. The music ranges from a gentle minimalism to piquant dissonances. The scoring is always colourful, innovative and illuminated. It makes for an ideal impression of a river flowing inexorably towards the sea.

One can only hope that developers do not choose to build on this flood plain and destroy what is clearly a magical part of the Kingdom. Fortunately, much of the river’s course is contained in the Seven Sisters Country Park.

Media Vita is a remarkable work. Written early in Hughes’s career, it is like a free fantasia on 16th century composer John Sheppard’s eponymous motet. This has been reworked, expanded and twisted into a piano trio. Once again, the instrumental scoring adds considerable value to this interesting formal [re]creation. The style and mood of the music certainly made me recall that 'In the midst of life we are in death' – the text that Sheppard used for his masterpiece.

I am not sure how to approach the Sinfonia. According to the liner notes, this is a piece of programme music. For example, in the first of six movements we are encouraged to ‘hear the arrows fly and the hatchets land in Agincourt’. In the second, ‘Stella Celi Extirpavit mortis pestem’ (The Star of Heaven has rooted out the deathly plague) the supplicants’ prayers to Our Lady are ‘heard’. To be fair, what Hughes is doing is ‘responding to his deep love of compositional history’ of the period between 1400 and 1600. In a long sentence, he has claimed that the Sinfonia was ‘a creative response to English music of this period that would acknowledge my debt to the emotional life of this music, with its soaring lines (like cathedrals), its curious structures, its high culture (for chapels, courts) but with the popular or vernacular also sometimes echoed in the legacy of notated manuscripts, its balance between the sacred and the profane’. Take a breath. Hughes has once again used pre-existing musical compositions to generate his formal and melodic structures but has twisted them so far from their exemplars as to be unrecognisable.

I think that the clue to enjoying this work is to dump the programme but keep in mind the tension between the sacred and the profane. It is a remarkably taut score, with many felicitous moments. The sound is often dissonant, yet there are several lyrical and sometimes even romantic passages emerging from, or sinking into, the progress of the work.

The playing is excellent in all three works. The recording is ideal. Ed Hughes has written illuminating liner notes that give both an outline and a detailed analysis of each work. A good biography of the composer can be found on his website.

When so much modern classical or art music seems to be caught in the doldrums of commercialised sub-Einaudi meanderings and insipid harmonies, it is refreshing to come across a composer who writes in a style that is challenging without being off-putting. I cut my teeth on music in the early 1970s, so I was not averse to hearing ‘progressive’ music by the greats of that time such as Stockhausen, Peter Maxwell Davies and Pierre Boulez. After a series of ‘isms’ including minimalism, computer music, new simplicity and new complexity, Ed Hughes’s music comes as a refreshing change. I guess that it is post-modernist and eclectic in the sense that the composer is willing and able to use a wide variety of musical inspirations and palettes. He writes in a trajectory from the earliest English vocal music composers of the 14th century down to the present day, His ability to adapt, recreate and bend this music to his own voice is remarkable.

John France

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