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Linda CATLIN SMITH (b. 1957)
Meadow, for string trio (2019)
Mia Cooper (violin); Joachim Roewer (viola); William Butt (cello)
rec. August 2020, Camden Studio, Dublin, Ireland

There’s just a single review of New York-born, Toronto-based Linda Catlin Smith’s oeuvre in the MWI archive (Glyn Pursglove was impressed by her Ricercar for baroque cello and by Elinor Frey’s fine playing - review), but there’s a lot of her stuff on disc, much of it on the questing, out there Another Timbre label. Two albums stand out; the twofer Drifter (AT105x2) features ten consistently absorbing chamber works, among which an intricately textured piano quintet and a remarkable half hour string quartet, Folkestone seem exceptional. The latter is demonstrably touched by the spirit of one J M W Turner. The other disc I must wholeheartedly recommend is Dirt Road, an unusual and compelling cycle of fifteen pieces for violin and percussion performed with evangelical zeal by Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick (AT97). A couple of years ago her ethereal orchestral piece Nuages provided a deceptively unassuming opening to a BBC Prom; Ilan Volkov’s hypnotic performance with The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was utterly immersive. I return to it frequently.

A quote from the composer on the Another Timbre website in which she summarises the Dirt Road album neatly epitomises many of Catlin Smith’s compositional preoccupations:
“I called the work Dirt Road because I felt I was working with material that was plain, simple, unadorned. It also implies, for me, the sense of being a bit off the beaten path. I like the image of solitude that it invokes, and the sense that there is not a lot happening. And yet when you walk in the country on a lonely path, there is always so much to see and to think and to feel.”

It strikes me that the same kind of essence is at the core of this strangely riveting string trio Meadow. Over a span of 32 minutes the work slowly unfolds, poised somewhere between delicacy (one can focus on the grainy string sound in the same way they might focus on a sliver of bark and snap it) and a satisfying and robust confidence. Many is the time I’ve stepped out with my wife for an evening walk in the woods I didn’t really fancy doing at the outset, but the play of the light upon red robin feathers, the inexorable yet unpredictable descent of a falling leaf, a dramatic rustling pre-empting a battle between two squirrels and similar events increasingly draw one in to the extent that after an hour you really don’t want to leave. Ever. The attraction is first in the detail, and the addictive mood that the whole exerts comes later. Imagine Feldman with less air between the notes, more substance in the silences, unexpected yet explicit harmony and a more palpable sense of drive. Meadow is gravely beautiful and will unfailingly lead the curious listener around the next distant bend. Its apparent spontaneity conceals music that is skilfully conceived and deftly crafted. Each of the three instruments seem to be constantly in action. Everything is arco. The pace is unrushed and the dynamic rarely exceeds mezzoforte yet Catlin Smith’s music effortlessly incorporates unexpected variety from first bar to last. There’s no vibrato but much that sings. There’s nothing to shock or startle, but plenty to notice on this stroll. Like the best music and the best walks, there’s more to discover with greater familiarity, especially if we have some grasp of the best methods of finding whatever it is we’re seeking.

This issue is apparently the first in a pandemic-inspired series from Louth Contemporary Music Society entitled ‘Out of Silence’. The three players are completely inside Catlin Smith’s lush yet meditative idiom. The sonics incorporate both radiance and clarity.

In her brief introduction to the disc the composer states that the piece is “…like a patient observation of material than a form of self-expression. I try to keep myself out of it, and let it just be.” She’s absolutely right. Meadow just is. The sun may disappear behind the clouds from time to time but you just know it will reappear. If one submits to its vernal and intermittently bracing charm, the listener will not fail to stop and smell the flowers and imbibe the fresh air. I’d take a wander there any time.

Richard Hanlon

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