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Gillian Rae PERRY (b. 1996)
Lost Children (2021)
Kristen Lee (narrator)
Ensemble/Julianne Reames
rec. 2021, Carbonite Sound, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Private release [52:06]

Genres are peculiar things. I found myself thinking of this remarkable release by American composer Gillian Rae Perry as an opera, even though, according to her own notes, it was written for dance and film. There is singing in it but it is probably closer to those difficult-to-pigeon-hole spoken word with music pieces of the 1930s. The opera connection probably came from a fleeting resemblance to Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, another fairy-tale that delivers so much more, and similar explorations of the darker side of the psyche such as Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway. Whatever genre it belongs to, it is a barnstorming piece by a composer I hadn’t previously come across.

The plot is simple but with enough left unstated for the music to evoke what the composer calls “a harrowing journey through the subconscious”. Five children are stolen away by shadows and undergo a tortuous path before returning home, strangely altered. To begin with the music seems too plain to bear the weight of supplementing such a bare bones plot but Perry is luring us in to the strange musical world of the piece. She needs to set the scene in this way for the various chilling recollections of this music later to have their full effect.

The music is scored for chamber ensemble with extensive percussion and four voices. Perry uses these limited forces with great resourcefulness. This is not a particularly taxing score for the listener, including in its mix of styles popular music and hints of minimalism. Perry’s achievement is to take these influences and create something genuinely original in mood. The tone of the piece is its great strength. Perry tells us what, in effect, is a magnificent ghost story in the sense that it is dominated by feelings of alienation and loss. Mercifully, she resists the temptation to turn this into a kind of musical horror film. Her spooky effects are there for emotional, not sensational reasons. The emotional ones are both powerful yet subtle. This means that when she needs to make the music scream, as at the start of Scene IV, it really does. Like the best creepy story tellers, Perry knows to underplay her hand.

Throughout, Perry displays a deft and delicate touch. She is clearly a master of a whole arsenal of advanced compositional techniques but they never become the point of the music. Indeed, she seems immune to the boring debate between progressive and conservative. I doubt many listeners will struggle with her musical style but that doesn’t mean it is backward-looking and nothing on this record falls into the trap of pastiche. Like a lot of younger composers, she has absorbed the avant garde and feels comfortable using their methods when the situation demands. As a consequence, her music is free of self-consciousness. This is a piece that communicates.

Perry is equally unafraid of emotion. Listen to the end of the second scene and what we hear is music that is meant to stir the emotions. It is fragmented and disembodied, but in order to awaken feelings of abandonment. If you think contemporary music is excessively cerebral (it isn’t) or simply concerned with shock tactics (again, not so) then this is the piece to change your mind. Lost Children is beautiful, audacious, surprising and thought-provoking – what more could we reasonably expect from a piece of music?

The only section that I felt didn’t quite come off was the lengthy passage for percussion that makes up the bulk of Scene IV. Next to the rest of the music this seemed a little ordinary, though, given that the section was entitled Hearing, I can see that this is an ingenious way of evoking that sense. Perhaps this part works better combined with dance but I also felt the performance here a little underpowered. Elsewhere the performances are superb and the recording exemplary. Pleasingly, it isn’t miked too closely in the manner of popular music as so many recordings of contemporary classical recordings are these days.

The ghostly snippets of voices that complete Scene IV quickly get things back on track and the end of the work is a veritable tour de force. The children return but have been changed. The musical elements of the previous scenes, haunting in themselves, haunt the first half of the final scene. Voices mutter and harmonise in the background, whilst in the foreground the music seems to drift and decay, becoming increasingly dissonant. It grows more frantic as it tries to find its way back to where it began. A frenzied repetitious passage brings things to a stunning peak which is cut short by an eerie vibraphone note. The quiet, fairly diatonic music that follows has the effect of an uneasy lullaby, glacially beautiful but also, in the light of what has preceded it, uncomfortable. It is touched by a huge sadness which seems to me the sadness of the parent for a child who grows up, but also the loss of the world of the child by the grown-up. Strangely, the wonder of this music is that it restores a link back to that lost childhood world by undermining the seeming certainties of the adult one. It is a most impressive musical moment.

Perry is clearly more than a potential talent but the real deal. I look forward to hearing more from her as her career flourishes, as it undoubtedly will if she keeps producing work of this calibre. This is a composer to be encouraged and I hope this disc achieves the success it merits.

David McDade

Narrator - Kristen Lee
Clarinet - Michael Salas
Percussion - Brandon Carson
Piano - Richard An
Soprano - Marja Liisa Kay
Alto - Alia Johnson
Tenor - Kion Heidari
Bass - Braden Pontoli
Violin - Nigel Deane
Viola - Kanoa Ichiyanagi
Cello - Wells Leng
Conductor - Julianne Reames

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