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Suckling tuning DCD34235
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Martin SUCKLING (b. 1981)
The Tuning, for mezzo-soprano and piano (2019) [18:45]
Nocturne, for violin and cello (2013) [8:52]
Emily’s Electrical Absence, for string quintet (2017, revised 2018) [31:49]
Her Lullaby, for solo cello (2019/20) [16:10]
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Glyn (piano)
Francis Leviston (reader)
Aurora Orchestra principals
rec. April 2020, Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, UK
DELPHIAN DCD34235 [75:39]

The Scottish composer Martin Suckling was born in Glasgow in 1981. In his teens he was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (as a violinist) and also played in a number of ceilidh bands in Scotland. He studied music at Clare College Cambridge, King’s College London and Yale University, before undertaking doctoral research at the Royal Academy. His teachers have included, at various times, Paul Patterson, George Benjamin, Robin Holloway, Ezra Laderman and Simon Bainbridge. He is currently Professor of Composition at the University of York and a member of the Contemporary Music Research Centre at the University.

The first two things that were obvious on my initial hearing of this fine disc were Suckling’s skill and imaginative resourcefulness as a composer, and the striking sensitivity with which he deals with poetry. This well-filled and very well-programmed disc begins with The Tuning, a setting for mezzo-soprano and piano of five poems by the late Michael Donaghy (1954-2004). Suckling’s very familiarity with Donaghy’s work is in itself evidence of the composer’s alert awareness of contemporary poetry. Though Donaghy and his work are/were well-known in the relatively small community of those who read the magazines in which much poetry is now published and reviwed or who attend poetry readings and festivals, it cannot be said that he was ever much celebrated in the mainstream media (this happened a little more after his death!). Donaghy was born in New York into a family of Irish origin; he based himself in London from 1985. Most of his verse was written in established forms (sometimes handled idiosyncratically) and was imbued with both lyricism and exactness of thought. Often witty, his work showed a fondness for allusion, but he rarely made use of this in ways likely to bewilder readers. At ‘readings’ he often recited his poems from memory and brought out very clearly their fluent music. Poetry was not his only talent. He played flute, tin whistle and bodhrán (a traditional drum) in Irish folk bands.

The Tuning should not, perhaps, be thought of as a song cycle, though it certainly has some affinities with that form. It sets poems by a single poet, for example. There isn’t, however, any explicit or even powerfully implicit, narrative. The poems Suckling has chosen from across Donaghy’s work do, though, have clear affinities one with another. These affinities are created, I think, as much or more by the composer’s juxtaposition of these poems, as by any conscious intention on the part of the poet. The texts have a pervasive sense of the twilit; images of water recur with some frequency; the moon appears more than once. The texts all seem to suggest that the poet is writing to or of a beloved woman – “Make me this present then: your hand in mine, / and we’ll live out our lives in it.” (‘The Present’, poem 1 in the sequence); “we breathed together - / in - soft rain gentling the level of the lake. / - out – bright mist rising from the lake at dawn” (‘The River in Spate’, poem 2); “Tears are shed, and every day / workers recover / the bloated cadavers / of lovers or lover / who drown” (‘Tears’, poem 3); “That’s when she started singing. / It’s written that the voice of the god of Israel / Was the voice of many waters” (‘The Tuning’, poem 4); “seven eels in the urge of water / … / a river to carry her” (‘Two Spells for Sleeping’, poem 5).

A flavour of this can be experienced in the opening lines of ‘The Present’ (a delightfully punning title, referencing both ‘the period of time occurring now’ and ‘a gift’):

For the present there is just one moon,
though every level pond gives back another.

But the bright disc shining in the black lagoon,
perceived by astrophysicist and lover,

is milliseconds old. And even that light’s
seven minutes older than its source.

And the stars we think we see on moonless nights
are long extinguished. And, of course

this very moment, as you read this line,
is literally gone before you know it.

The intimate and the remote, the small and the vast, are conflated with startling power and Donaghy’s use of couplets, delineated by both full rhymes (e.g. “moon” and “lagoon”) and imperfect rhymes (e.g “lover” and “another”) suggest that that ‘conflation’ is, in itself, a kind of ‘rhyming’ across space and time. The ‘contradictions’ of the human experience of time are carefully pointed. Suckling’s setting manages to respect virtually all the details of Donaghy’s text. After a sustained and subtle piano introduction, (evocative, it seemed to me, of moonlight reflected on water – or did I think it so because I was already familiar with the text that was to follow it?), Suckling’s setting respects Donaghy’s couplet structure (indeed he seems nowhere to overwrite Donaghy’s texts), allowing us to hear the rhyme words clearly (there are even some occasions when he emphasizes them slightly). Through most of the setting the vocal writing is at the lower end of the mezzo-soprano range and the tone is rather covered (fittingly for a text that is largely crepuscular). However, in the final couplet, when Donaghy’s text speaks of the ‘gift’ of mutual love – “Make me this present then: your hand in mine, / and we’ll live out our lives in it” – the voice rings out bright and open. The whole setting is perfectly shaped and serves Donaghy’s text with perceptive sensitivity. Here, and throughout The Tuning, the performance is both technically excellent and powerfully emotional (without the slightest hint of excess or exaggeration). The pianist and the singer, Christopher Glynn and Maria Fontanals-Simons, are fully engaged with both words and music. Their partnership has a striking assurance, each clearly having full confidence in the other. In ‘The Present’ they respond with equal certainty of mood and manner to both the ‘darkling’ nature of the poem’s opening and to the redemptive (or at least potentially redemptive) light and love of its final couplet. Elsewhere in The Tuning, composer and performers alike find convincing ways to articulate perfectly, on the one hand, the reflections on the certainty of death in ‘The Tuning’ and the Celtic magic of ‘Two Spells for Sleeping’ (which closes the sequence):

six candles for a king’s daughter
five sighs for a drooping head
a prayer to be whispered
a book to be read
four ghosts to gentle her bed
three owls in the dusk falling …

The dialogue of words and music in a passage such as this brought to the forefront of my mind the etymology of our noun ‘charm’ (in the sense of a magical spell)– which comes from the Latin noun carmen, meaning a song or poem. In Suckling’s setting of Donaghy’s ‘Two Spells for Sleeping’ song and charm unite in magical fashion. Taken as a whole The Tuning is one of the very finest new settings of contemporary poetry by a British composer that I have heard for quite some time. It would, in itself, be enough to recommend this CD enthusiastically. But the disc has much else to offer too.

In a text (‘What hath night to do with sleep’) – the title is taken from Milton’s Comus l.122) – which can be found online, Suckling has interesting things to say both about his compositional habits and about Nocturne, the second work on this disc: “I see a lot of the night… it’s good to write before the household has woken … it’s good to write after the household is asleep … by accident or design, much of my music has been written in the hours of darkness … There’s a strange kind of focus that comes with composing through the night (assuming you stay awake) … My little night music for violin and cello is, essentially, an obsessively repeated song from the ‘other’ world of microtonal harmonies. It is an anti-duo, this in the sense that the two instruments are fused together as a single unit throughout; it’s about one-ness rather than two-ness. Nothing changes, really, but as the verses stack up, the violin’s ornamentation lifts it airborne, until it seems to find a space of its own, separate from the cello.

Because the best bit, the bit that makes you realise that it really is time to leave the desk but somehow glad that you’re still there to hear it begin, is when the stillness starts to ripple with birdsong.”

Nocturne is played here by violinist Alessandro Ruisi and cellist Alexander Holladay, members, like all the other instrumentalists heard on the disc (except Christopher Glynn) of the Aurora Orchestra, the excellent London-based chamber orchestra founded in 2004. The ‘shape’ which Suckling writes of in ‘What hath night to do with sleep’, in which a time of darkness (a darkness of concentrated focus that is rich in creative energy) is brought to an end with the ‘uplift’ of the dawn chorus, we have already met, in a another, related form, in his setting of ‘The Present’. As Suckling implies when he writes that at the close of his “little night music for violin and cello … the violin’s ornamentation lifts it airborne, until it seems to find a space of its own, separate from the cello”. The microtonal writing in much of the earlier parts of ‘Nocturne’ is powerful and shimmeringly magical (like starlight?) at times – its tensions are released in the violin’s ‘escape’ (analogous to the dawn chorus). Nocturne, like The Tuning, is an intriguing and rewarding work, provoking thought and feeling with equal intensity.

Suckling’s musical dialogue with contemporary poetry continues in String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence, in which the poems we hear are by Frances Leviston (b. Edinburgh, 1982), well-known both as a novelist (The Voice in My Ear, 1991) and a poet (e.g. Public Dream, 2007; Disinformation, 2015). It is, however, an earlier poet whose name provides the work’s title – the remarkable American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), little known in her own time but mow regarded as a major figure. Leviston places epigraphs from Dickinson’s letters and poems before four of her poems. Thus the first poem here is prefaced by these words “I hope you may have an electrical absence, as life never loses its startlingness, however assailed.” (from a letter of 1882 to Professor James K. Chickering); the second poem, ‘White Box’ is prefaced thus: “Of Tribulation, these are They, / Denoted by the White –”, while the last poem in Leviston’s sequence, ‘The Pursuit of Universal Harmony’, has, as epigraph, a note found amongst Dickinson’s papers: “Excuse / Emily and / her Atoms”. But this is not by any means all if the cultural ‘freight’ that String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence carries, in its rich allusiveness.
The booklet notes by Joanna Wyld inform the reader that “Suckling and Leviston’s commission was initiated by a group of physicists developing the PETMEM (Piezoeolectronic Transduction Memory Device), a low-voltage transistor with the potential to make computer processors run up to 100 times faster.” To explain the physics behind this is way beyond my competence, but the reader might like to consult the document and/or some notes written by Suckling (and dated December 2017) for performance of the work by members of the Aurora Orchestra. I quote some observations from the latter:

“No listener, no performer, no composer can escape their personal musical histories and engage an ‘innocent ear” … We also inherit a cultural memory of attitudes and responses and repertories. For some this is a burden, for others raw material to be moulded anew …”

Alongside the poet Frances Leviston, I’ve spent much of the last twelve months considering the topic of memory and exploring how the ideas and processes behind PETMEM technology might translate into musical possibilities … The memory of a crucial predecessor is woven into each of our works: for Frances, Emily Dickinson; for me, Franz Schubert”.

Picking up on this last sentence of Suckling’s, Leviston’s use of direct quotation from Emily Dickinson’s letters has already been illustrated above. There are also places where Leviston adopts one of Dickinson’s most characteristic idiosyncrasies, the use of dashes to ‘punctuate’ poems, by which phrases are kept discrete and separate one from another while simultaneously building up to become the whole poem. Each phrase feels like a brief electrical / electromagnetic pulse, as if recording the neurological movements of the poet’s brain and nervous system. If one compares a typical stanza by Dickinson:

There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
So memory can step
Around – across – upon it –
As one within a Swoon –
Goes safely - where an open eye –
Would drop Him – Bone by Bone

with the opening of Leviston’s ‘Emily’s Electrical Absences’:

Technologies – are not abrupt –
Though Pole-vaults may appear –
The lever bends a longer spell
Than Morals – in a Fire

And clatters off the Bar before
It ever clears the way –
And makes the Mass – astonished – cheer
A bruised inverted Thigh

the purposeful indebtedness is clear.

Elsewhere , in ‘I see thee better’, the third of Leviston’s texts, the opening of one of Dickinson’s poems, ‘I see thee better – in the Dark’ is quoted:

withdrawing into augmentedness:
I see thee better – in the Dark – I do not need
a Light; firing electrons at a stage
one thousandth

the width of a human

Given the subject of the work which Suckling and Leviston were creating, Dickinson provides the perfect poetic model since, despite her reclusive life, she was very much in touch with the scientific developments of her time. One modern scholar, F.D. White, has asserted with much justice, in his essay ‘“Sweet Skepticism of Heart”: Science in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson’ (College English, 19(1), 1992, pp. 121-8) that “Few poets in the twentieth century, let alone the nineteenth, have incorporated scientific concepts into their work as purposively and effectively as Emily Dickinson” (p.121). In Dickinson’s verse one encounters images and metaphors from physics, astronomy, mathematics and many other disciplines. If she were alive now Dickenson would undoubtedly have been fascinated by the work of PETMEM and would have put her fascination to poetic use.

Suckling, as quoted above, speaks of the String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence involving his “memory of a crucial predecessor … Franz Schubert”. The work at the front of Suckling’s ‘memory’ i Smajor, D.956. In her notes Joanna Wyld observes very aptly that Schubert’s quintet [in C major, D.956] “colours [Suckling’s] music in the same way the influence of Emily Dickinson does Leviston’s texts”. I have little doubt that Martin Suckling has great respect for Schubert’s work (personally. I would be suspicious of any composer – whatever his or her own musical language – who didn’t admire Schubert). More specifically Suckling has a good share of that sensitivity of response to poetry which makes Schubert the greatest master of song. A yet more specific affinity is evident in Suckling’s use of the string quintet in his String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence – in their string quintets, Mozart and Beethoven wrote supplemented the instruments of the string quartet by adding a second viola; Schubert chose, rather, to add a second cello in his late String Quintet in C major written in 1828 and surely one of the finest of all chamber compositions. It is Schubert’s example that Suckling chooses to follow, thus accessing the darker palette of Schubert’s Quintet. String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence is played here by Jamie Campbell (violin 1), Alessandro Ruisi (violin 2), Hélène Clément (viola), Sébastien van Kujik (cello 1) and Alexander Holladay (cello 2).

It is, of course, brave – one might say foolhardy – for any composer to invite direct comparison with Schubert or any poet with Emily Dickinson. It is much to the credit of both Suckling and Leviston that they are not entirely sunk by the comparisons. When Leviston imitates the manner of Emily Dickinson’s poetry she is far more successful than one has any right to expect. When she writes in a manner more purely her own – as, for example, in the fourth of her poems in this sequence ‘In an Alabaster Chamber’, there is no loss of intensity as she explores Tiepolo’s wonderful ceiling fresco in the Ca’ Rezzonico (in Venice) usually referred to as the ‘Nuptial Allegory’, in company with a collection of works by the contemporary Italian artist Marzia Migliora (b.1972) which was installed in Ca’ Rezzonico (some of it in the Nuptial Allegory Room) between May and November of 2017 under the title velme (mudflats, submerged islands). Although the spirit of Dickinson is not explicitly present in this fine poem, there is a related intensity of thought and sensitivity. Suckling’s music doesn’t ‘imitate’ Schubert as directly as Leviston draws on the example of Dickinson – save in the use of the second cello, but his skilled use of shifting and uncertain tonalities surely owes much to the example of Schubert’s great quintet.

After the complex scientific and artistic interrelationships which underlie the String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence, the work which closes this outstanding disc, ‘Her Lullaby’ has more personal origins, albeit those origins have their own kind of profundity and universality. Suckling’s brief note on the work, which can be found on the composer’s website is worth quotation in full:
“For several years, every night I would sing to my young children, sometimes for hours. Folksongs, songs made up on the spot, verse after verse, anything that could maintain a calm continuity of circling sound. (So many folksong plots are not the stuff of good night tenderness, but I sang them anyway.)
And then the children didn’t need the songs any more. Which was in many ways a relief, but really I miss that calm timeless space of song gentling the night. The deep listening required of the solo performer in Her Lullaby – pitching the justly-tuned intervals, allowing the harmonies to fuse in the body of the instrument, finding the right durations for each sound – alongside the strophe-by-strophe near-improvised extension of the melody recall for me those special times I spent with my children when they were very young, singing them across the border from wakefulness to sleep.”

The work exists in three versions – for solo violin, viola or cello. Here it is played by cellist Sébastien van Kujik. It fuses tenderness with nostalgia, the latter looking back to an experience valued and treasured and held in memory, but now lost and no longer available. Full of spectral timbres and with extensive use of microtonality, the slow and quietly insistent forward movement of ‘Her Lullaby’ seems to hover on the border between wakefulness and sleep.

Before having the opportunity to listen (repeatedly) to this fine disc I had heard only a few other pieces by Martin Suckling, liking them enough to put his name on my (mental) list of contemporary composers of whom I wished to hear more. This ‘survey’ of some of Suckling’s recent chamber-size works has more than confirmed my belief that he is a subtle and substantial composer. Above all, the two works on this disc (The Tuning and the String Quintet: Emily’s Electrical Absence) in which Suckling writes in dialogue with poetry, as it were, strike me as major works. They are, in
themselves, enough to make it clear that he deserves a distinguished place in that line of British composers who are masters of the musical articulation of poetry’s energies and meanings, the line that runs through figures such as Dowland, Henry Lawes, Purcell and Britten (this, obviously and necessarily, is a very partial list). I have tried, in this review, to bring out something of the symbiotic relationship (i.e. a relationship which is of mutual benefit) between text and music in these works. In doing so, I am conscious that I may have quoted from and discussed Suckling’s texts in a way which some readers of MusicWeb may find excessive. I believe, however, that it is essential to understand something of these texts before one can fully appreciate Suckling’s musical achievement. It may be that my fascination with these ‘vocal’ works has led to my saying less than they deserve about the purely instrumental works, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Her Lullaby’. My defence can only be purely personal: my love of the arts began with poetry, which love led me into my delight in music and painting, and I still find poems one of the best ways into music.

The whole CD benefits greatly from assured and perceptive performances from all concerned and from the consistently high quality of the recorded sound.

Glyn Pursgove

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