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En Masse: Offspring Bites 3
Alex POZNIAK (b. 1982)
En Masse (2018) [32:07]
bend/boogie/break (2018) [10:07]
Thomas MEADOWCRAFT (b. 1972)
Medieval Rococo (2016) [12:51]
Ensemble Offspring
rec. Studio 301 (En Masse), Sydney Conservatorium of Music (bend/boogie/break) and Eugene Goossens, ABC Centre Ultimo (Medieval Rococo), dates not given.

This release follows on from Offspring Bites 2 which I reviewed in October 2019. Claire Edwardes has long been an admirable ambassador for living composers and music for percussion, amply demonstrated with her ‘Coil’ album on the Tall Poppies label (review), but Ensemble Offspring is an even more flexible vehicle for substantial new works.

Offspring Bites 3 doesn’t appear to have a theme as such, but as its title indicates is a programme built around Alex Pozniak’s three-movement juggernaut En Masse. I’m going to start with the shorter pieces before unpacking the main course. Holly Harrison’s music “is driven by the nonsense literature of Lewis Caroll, embracing stylistic juxtapositions, the visceral energy of rock, and whimsical humour.” bend/boogie/break is full of rhythmic verve and intriguing sonorities and is clearly great fun to play. The title points towards the recurring ideas in the piece: “Bend refers to the use of glissandi and pitch bends… Boogie refers to the underlying funk bass; and Break, as in, to break apart or a ‘breakdown’ section…” Syncopations and short, gestural material abounds, though cadences, lyrical lines and a clear narrative flow also make for a feel of satisfying structure. The title of Thomas Meadowcroft’s Medieval Rococo “is an oxymoron for our time: how is it possible to generate an abundance of wealth, ornamentation and redundancy on the back of an impoverished idea? The terms ‘medieval’ and ‘rococo’ are not used as reference periods of European art history but used in the populist sense of the words. ‘Medieval’ denotes music crude and backward, ‘rococo’ denotes music garish and arty.” In the end, Medieval Rococo is a largely meditative piece that alternates and develops between harmonies using techniques that have a connection with Schönberg’s Farben. Harpsichord and tuned percussion add brightness and punctuation to the undulating chords, and an electronic track gradually introduces itself and recedes, eventually returning to engulf the musicians with a tsunami of effects. The coda changes atmosphere again, exchanging the harpsichord for a harmonium-like organ for a few bars, and then building to a more animated and rhythmic texture in the electronics - still restrained and relatively static - and then it stops. If you like Brian Eno then you’ll like this for sure.

...and so to the main act. The title of Alex Pozniak’s En Masse “refers to the idea of the ensemble working together in a unified mass, and the musical ideas explore notions of mass or heaviness.” The work is in three movements though these are played continuously, and while there is a general fast-slow-fast pattern there is also ‘slow’ music in the first and third movements. “It is music that indulges in synchronised, mechanical rhythmic ideas albeit within a continuous, flowing musical narrative, translating influences from the technologised sound-world of rock/metal music into an instrumental art music context.” This is well crafted music, and at any random point picked out from the whole is by no means bereft of interest. The slow movement has a gloomy heft and some interesting timbres, but even after several plays I was left asking myself, ‘what is he trying to say?’

When it comes to music criticism I have been listening to and drawing some parallels with, for instance, an audience’s lack of response when it comes to (again, for instance) comedians. Why will one night of a particular act succeed and another fail? Why will one person laugh like a drain and the one sitting next to them be left entirely cold? This is the same with music. If I don’t ‘get it’ then that’s entirely down to me, and the person next to me hearing entirely the same piece in the same performance might be inspired and energised and be instantly online looking for more from the same source. While I respect this work, I am troubled by content that seems to lack ‘personality’ for lack of a better word. There is plenty going on in the rhythmic parts, and there is mood where there is an intention to create mood, but nothing is outspoken enough to create ‘shock’, and for all of that “flowing musical narrative” there is no particular moment at which the synapses are set alight with connections and an ‘aaah’ of revelatory insight. For me, the narrative is disjointed, the music rich in neither beauty nor real beastliness. There are points of recognition and the dramatic low notes of the beginning recur at the end, but is this enough? It makes me feel stupid for not being better able to pin down the exact causes for my discomfort, but if a piece of music is causing me discomfort then even deeper analysis and explanation might not provide a cure. I’ve left it aside for days and come back to it several times now, but this for me, alas, remains a 30 minute piece that could have said the same and had more impact in 15. Music criticism is thankfully only just one opinion however, and I’m sure that there are plenty of people who will disagree with my restless dissatisfaction with what comes across to me as the stream of rather empty post avant-garde tropes in En Masse.

Whatever my comments and aside from the contents of this particular release, Ensemble Offspring and the Offspring Bites series is a superb initiative. Any organisation or ensemble that is prepared to work with living composers and perform and record their work with this kind of palpable passion and commitment deserves all the support they can get, and this goes for Offspring Bites 3 in every sense.

Dominy Clements

Claire Edwardes (percussion/Artistic Director)
Véronique Serret (violin)
Jason Noble (clarinets)
Lamorna Nightingale (flutes)
Blair Harris (cello)
Rowena McNeish (cello, En Masse)
Benjamin Kopp (piano, En Masse)
Zubin Kanga (piano)
Roland Peelman (conductor, En Masse)

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