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Adam PORĘBSKI (b. 1990)
First Command – electroacoustic suite for ensemble based on ‘The Shadow Line’ by Joseph Conrad
Paul Preusser (narrator)
Adam Porębski (electronics)
Hashtag Ensemble/Lilianna Krych
rec. 2019, ZPiT Mazowsze Concert Hall, Otrębusy, Poland
Full texts included
DUX 1059 [55:13]

Whilst I confess I have never read the book, I understand that Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Shadow Line’ communicates the author’s ruminations on youth and experience within a narrative framework which incorporates a young seaman resigning his role on one ship before taking command of another, a vessel which proves to have had a tragic, ambiguous past. Aspects of Conrad’s work draw on his former calling as a sea captain, but it seems that the work’s richly allusive atmosphere is what most appealed to the young Wrocław-based composer Adam Porębski in contriving First Command, a strangely attractive ‘suite’ in ten movements for narrator, instrumental octet and electronics. The instrumental line-up is hardly conventional, and includes important parts for harp, accordion and double-bass.

The structure is perfectly straightforward: Porębski has selected the ten most important events from the narrative and presents them in chronological order. The relevant extracts are delivered verbatim (in English) by Paul Preusser, in an appropriately deadpan, objective style (Conrad’s words are presented from a first-person perspective and constitute a kind of confessional). After each spoken segment, the instrumental/electroacoustic material which follows seeks to inveigle the listener into the often eerie world of Conrad’s imagination. The American tang of Preusser’s accent complements the conceit of the work and the sound of Porębski’s music most aptly.

This composer writes music of remarkable economy – the entirety of the first number Resignation, for example, derives entirely from repeated pairs of chords from harp, strings and accordion in turn. The spare use of electronics shifts between omnipresent (yet barely noticed) hints of endless horizons and suggestions of a watery environment. A melancholy, repeated horn note later in the span triggers another vaguely marine association. In time the electronic halo is all that’s left, apart from lonely two-note string figures. On the surface there’s not much happening; that’s far from the case as the listener is moved to probe more deeply and gets lost in the piece.

In the subsequent Message, there are livelier exchanges between the instruments but Porębski’s means are still spare. Light woodwind and meagre string repetitions project a Reichian flavour, but this is momentary. The accordion (which retains a nautical flavour even in this terser context) and the electronics expand the space, intermingling indistinguishably. Harp pluckings imply gently lapping waves. Porębski’s music weaves its spell subtly – ambiguity and tension emerge imperceptibly. In Ship, a delirious yet dream-like double-bass underpins music which becomes increasingly claustrophobic and haunting. Peculiar harmonics fade in and out – is that Morse code seeping out of the weave?

Porębski is sufficiently adept in his instrumentation to neatly characterise the individuals who populate the narrative without veering towards the obvious – we know from the recitation, for example, that the ship’s doomed previous captain sought consolation by locking himself in his cabin and playing the violin, loudly and endlessly. Porębski’s references to this instrument are subtle and evoke creaking decks as much as neurotic mariners. Dramatic moments are occasionally amplified by more harrowing, animated music but this is kept to an absolute minimum. This composer conjures atmospheres and contexts with skill, precision and restraint. Conrad’s novella is seemingly pared right down to its essence.

One little-known work which came into my head while I listened to First Command was Roberto Gerhard’s The Plague, an extraordinary treatment of Albert Camus’ masterpiece. It’s permeation of my consciousness was only partly related to the simultaneity of the news of the WHO’s classification of COVID-19 as a pandemic; it has a number of parallels with Porębski’s piece- verbatim chunks of the text delivered in chillingly deadpan style approaching reportage by a narrator (most famously Alec McCowen on Decca’s long forgotten 1970s recording), a ‘novella’ similarly divided up into text then music, drama that is reined in and implicit, and so on – but these similarities are ultimately structural and superficial. Gerhard’s means are maximalist whereas the power of Porębski’s treatment lies in its leanness. Either way, the music is superbly delivered by the youthful members of the Hashtag Ensemble under Lilianna Krych. Dux’s sound could hardly be better applied – a subtle synthesis of dry narration, crisp instrumental shading and tactfully incorporated electronics. I suspect this will greatly appeal to those listeners who admire Conrad, as well as to fans of new Polish music.

Richard Hanlon

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