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Ed BENNETT (b. 1975)
Freefalling, for orchestra (2013) [10:08]
Song of the Books, for cello, ensemble and electronics (2018-19) [28:07]
Psychedelia, for orchestra (2016) [17:54]
Organ Grinder, for ensemble [14:05]
Magnetic, for bass clarinet and prepared piano (2010) [7:54]
Various soloists, ensembles and orchestras-listed after the review
rec 2013-2020, various locations
NMC D257 [78:13]

It’s taken nine years for NMC to follow-up their initial Ed Bennett portrait disc, My Broken Machines, which was warmly welcomed by Dominy Clements (review) in the long-ago summer of 2011. That debut contained seven shortish works scored for solo instruments and small instrumental groups; the new issue introduces some of Bennett’s more recent music written for more substantial ensembles. Each of these four big, recent works demonstrate the composer’s confidence in working with more ambitious structures and broader palettes; the brief duo Magnetic is the exception, the earliest piece here and arguably one which would have better matched the aesthetic of the debut disc.

In stylistic terms, I perceive the viscerally exciting Organ Grinder as a summary of Bennett’s compositional preoccupations prior to 2011. Scored for electronic (midi) organ and an ensemble of brass, winds, percussion and amplified guitars, it projects the kind of noise in which the renowned Dutch ensemble De Volharding would have revelled. Here it’s performed by another group from the Netherlands, the Orkest de Ereprijs under Wim Boerman. A dramatic opening yields a ciphering note and a slow burning chord, concealing glowering trombones – Bennett’s predilection for glissandi, so prominent on the debut, is happily present throughout this disc. This phrase is repeated and varied. Rapid percussion and brass connectives seem to reinforce a Louis Andriessen-like din, but this is short-lived and a bit misleading. The unusual, rather ‘prog’ colours that characterise the work are manipulated to tremendous effect, affording the whole a grandeur that is authentic and well-earned. The swirling, psychotic organ and woodwind that relentlessly nag at one from 5:20 make their mark, as 1960s TV cop show library soundtrack brass chords intervene, with yet more frenzied glissandi. Electric guitars and basses and thrilling, incessant drums hint at unselfconscious posturing, with wailing woodwinds haunting the ether between the bars. Organ Grinder is an exhilirating tour-de-force that ends up inhabiting an unexplored hinterland between De Volhardung and the terrain regularly occupied by another Irish provocateur, Gerard Barry. The organ part (the unidentified player surely merits a namecheck?) ends up dominating the piece, a coruscating whirligig of frenzy and mystery.

Fast forward half a dozen years or so, and Bennett’s voice has become yet more assured and singular, if the enigmatic Song of the Books is anything to go by. This is the most substantial piece I have heard to date by this composer, and not a note, gesture or silence is wasted in its compelling half-hour span. At the core of this concertante work for solo cello, ensemble and electronics is the Irish piper’s tune Amhrán Na Leabhar whose translation gives the piece its name. The tune itself mirrors a sad story: the poet and teacher Thomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1785–1848) was abruptly asked to change teaching jobs; while he travelled to his new posting by road his treasured library was sent on by a boat which hit rocks and was lost - Ó Súilleabháin thus conceived the tune as a lament. It is difficult to disentangle it from the texture; only when I played the tune through before each movement to retain it in my head did elements of its shape tentatively emerge. At the outset of the opening panel, a decisive crash launches a heady, chaotic texture which stabilises and endures (the composer cites the influential 1980s Dublin ‘shoegaze’ band My Bloody Valentine as a reference point; it’s a useful one for those of us who loved the group). The cellist plays raw, plangent threads of melody, swooping and sliding between tones. There are the briefest hints of pulsating techno. The consequent wall of sound is difficult to fully translate, but Bennett’s music certainly makes intuitive sense and makes for an absorbing listen. In the long central movement the electronics are subtle but palpable. The opening sounds depict a stylus on scratched vinyl. Cellist Kate Ellis painstakingly fashions a meditation on a single note; sporadic strikes and thuds interrupt unpredictably above the ensemble alongside a discreet electronic shroud. Implications of drone seem important. The electronics expand gently and contract momentarily. This is the most elusive music in the work (even on the disc); it’s rich in mystery and constitutes an oddly fascinating elegy. An incessant tuned beating becomes more prominent over ominous rumbling timpani – more glowering low brass glissandi spew forth from the lava. The cello line climbs and approaches the heights, this is not Tavener’s Protecting Veil, but it’s every bit as intense. A fugitive sadness is reinforced by taped birdsong in the last moments of this panel, hovering above single dampened, repeated piano tones. It’s as if Bennett is investigating the micro-activity lurking within an Irish lament, subjecting it to the kind of microscopic scrutiny that Giacinto Scelsi would have applied to a single note in an attempt to extract its essence. The pace increases modestly during the finale’s ten minute duration: strings and piano mirror each other in a bleak, regular pulse. Ellis drags elongated sforzandi gestures kicking and keening from her instrument. This is visceral, raw music for sure. Something changes at 5:36 – a side-drum beat seems more defined, the guitar part rocks – the intriguing, immersive textures absolutely consume the listener. The cello’s notes broaden and surf across taped, crashing waves of sound.

If Song of the Books is any indicator of where Bennett’s music is heading, we can anticipate a most stimulating journey. It’s simultaneously in-your-face and gorgeous. Kate Ellis brilliantly negotiates a tightrope between lyricism and brute force. The Decibel ensemble (founded by Ed Bennett himself – here it’s conducted by Daniele Rosina) is inside every vibration and glide. It’s an urgent, demanding, rewarding score and alone would justify purchase of this disc; as it is the inclusion of two big, brash orchestral pieces clinches the deal. The first of these is Freefalling, a piece which at no point requires one of those ‘Play Loud’ stickers. The regular pulse at its outset defies regular attempts at disequilibrium, Bennett’s signature virile brass sounds pull one’s cochlea this way and that. This is the orchestra as Rock God, nor is it untouched by dance and techno. The opening gestures collide in a big climax and then just continue. The middle section is dominated by a strange pot-pourri of gamelan, glissandi sirens and stabbing sounds. The concluding gesture, a rising glissando which fades inexorably into the distance below embodies a literal and effective representation of the physical act of freefalling. The whole edifice is a textbook example of a piece which quickly assumes an impressive mass of orchestral sound, offers tantalising, microscopic timbral contrasts to vary the effect and asserts its point with economy and taste in a 600 second span. I greatly enjoyed this white-knuckle ride.

The other orchestral work Psychedelia also lends its title to the album itself. This is a more diffuse and labyrinthine structure in which a tiny two-note motif in its early bars seems to play an increasingly important role, perhaps suggesting how those tiny details in life which are so easily overlooked enter our unconscious imperceptibly and end up dominating our dreams and nightmares. Psychedelia certainly creates the impression of a nascent organism, an hallucinogenic ‘trip’ perhaps? By 5:33 its gently oscillating waves of full orchestral texture seem to depend greatly upon those two notes. A concealed harp melody – later doubled by piano - suddenly creeps up on the listener. Warm brass chords form invitingly from within. At 8:00 the piece seems almost completely tonal and diatonic, but little sonic bacteria within threaten its well-being. By 10:20, timpani and trombones begin to overwhelm the structure, then a stabbing drum tattoo and banging anvil sounds anticipate a headache in the comedown. The percussion dominance yields to an overwhelming techno beat which starts to recede by 13:40, leaving a spiralling string glissandi. Notwithstanding incidental anxieties during the journey Psychedelia ultimately proves to be unthreatening, even enjoyable. Bennett has fashioned a riveting arc of dreamlike sound. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under David Brophy rise enthusiastically to the febrile challenges Bennett has set in both of these compelling orchestral works.

I suppose the stripped back duo Magnetic for bass-clarinet and piano, placed last on the disc, could be interpreted as something of a palate cleanser, but in its own way it’s no less substantial than the bigger-boned couplings. Eliza McCarthy’s piano has been prepared in such a way as to present guiro-like percussive textures. Magnetic’s gentle beginning involves Jack McNeill’s bass-clarinet emerging organically from two basic tones. A piano note is repeated incessantly before an abrupt gesture at 2:57 seems to indicate an impending dynamic shift which actually fails to materialise, although chordal piano effects are reiterated to the point where they are absorbed into the weave of the piece as it intensifies and loudens. The rapt conclusion is derived from the two note phrase (this is seemingly a key Bennett fingerprint) and weird, papery sounds. In his clear and informative booklet note Stephen Graham describes Magnetic as ‘poised and enigmatic’. It is both.

Performances by soloists and ensembles on this disc want for nothing, whilst the sound is big and detailed throughout, no mean achievement given the fact that a such a variety of venues, events and performing groups were involved. I suspect the composer was thrilled with it. This is as fine an issue as has come my way from NMC in some time –well, since last week actually (a disc of music by another rising Irish ‘star’ Linda Buckley) - it’s the second NMC winner in succession which I have had the great good fortune to review. Both have provided an auspicious conclusion to a year that has presented more than its share of often terrifying challenges. Yesterday I saw (and photographed) a kingfisher – let us hope these are all good omens for 2021.

Richard Hanlon

Performer & recording details
Freefalling RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Brophy, rec June 2019 at RTÉ Studio 1, Dublin, Ireland
Song of the Books Kate Ellis (cello), Decibel directed by Daniele Rosina, rec February 2020 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham, UK
Psychedelia RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Brophy, rec June 2019 at RTÉ Studio 1, Dublin, Ireland
Organ Grinder Orkest de Ereprijs conducted by Wim Boerman, rec June 2013 at the Orgelpark, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Magnetic Jack MacNeill (bass clarinet), Eliza McCarthy (piano), rec June 2016 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham, UK

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