Lliam PATERSON (b 1991)
Say it to the Still World, for choir and electric guitar (2021) [56:38]
Elegy for Esmeralda, for choir and electric guitar (2020) [6:39]
poppies spread, for choir (2019) [9:48]
Sean Shibe (electric guitar)
Choir of King’s College, London/Joseph Fort
rec. June 2021, Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London
Full texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34246 [73:10]
I wanted to like the main work on this disc for a number of reasons: (a) the idea of a really large-scale work for choir and electric guitar seems bold and fascinating; (b) the electric guitar in question is played by the naturally electric Sean Shibe and (c) I have heard many good things about its Ellon-born composer Lliam Paterson, not least from a few individuals who were fortunate enough to attend performances of his uniquely styled ‘opera for babies’ BambinO. I have been curious to hear some of Paterson’s work for myself and was especially pleased when Delphian, the Edinburgh-based label which does sterling work on behalf of Scottish composers (and performers) announced this ambitious release.
As it turned out I enjoyed all the music on this issue. Paterson is unquestionably a most accomplished composer for voices; his writing for the electric guitar has evidently benefitted from the technical advice he has received from Shibe. Given the explosion in new British choir music which has occurred during the last twenty years I was expecting a degree of conformity to the expertly wrought, warmly accessible formulae applied by the likes of Bob Chilcott, Gabriel Jackson and several others. (I do not mean this to be as begrudging as it possibly sounds – I am partial to a great deal of that repertoire). There is something more austere, even grave about Paterson’s choral writing. The outer movements of Say it to the Still World are both scored for choir with electric guitar and meld immense panels of immersive vocal sound with Shibe’s discreet guitar stylings and effects. The music throughout seems to oscillate between severe density and affecting lightness. The Choir of King’s College, London are ideally suited; they have evidently been fastidiously prepared by conductor Joseph Fort for the considerable technical challenges Paterson has laid down. The work was intended as a meditation upon the disconnect from the surrounding natural world imposed on us by death – in his lucid booklet note the composer refers to the recent passing of his mother Flora Paterson, herself an artist and writer who was frequently inspired by nature – and Paterson aptly distils fragments from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, weaving together original German and English translation to create a text whose actual sound seems in itself to convey meaning. That the composer can convert such a spare, economically arranged text into music which emerges as simultaneously luminous and epic is a notable achievement. Add to that the seamless interpolation of Shibe’s demanding, yet never showy-for-the-sake-of-it guitar part and you have two extended spans of fresh, invigorating work which impress mightily on first acquaintance and continue to do so during repetition. These two movements bookend an extended central solo for Shibe. This is a songful yet technically demanding panel which is clearly meant to evoke Orpheus himself. Again Paterson is sufficiently brave to shy away from the obvious and this is a brilliant piece designed for an amplified instrument which could easily seem ill-suited for choral accompaniment; for a performer with Shibe’s grace, eloquence and sensitivity however, excess is not even a remote possibility. This central movement could be perceived as a primer of all that this instrument might have to offer in a ‘classical’(whatever that implies) context.
The music of Say it to the Still World is exciting, uncommonly communicative and genuinely original. In itself it reinforces the positive impressions of those who witnessed Paterson’s unusual opera. But I was initially less convinced by its structure. I can’t help but wonder what the resultant composition may have been like if Paterson had been as selective with the elements of Shibe’s enormous Part 2 solo as he had been in seeking to extract the essence of Rilke in the few phrases of the Sonnets he chose to set. For me this panel seems too long – one almost forgets the mood effected by the first movement (despite the references to some of its motifs in Shibe’s part) and it rather felt like I needed to reconnect emotionally when the choir returned for Part 3. The flow of the work therefore strikes me as being a bit compromised in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have been the case had Paterson limited this central movement to say, ten minutes.
Having said all that, one wonders whether this ‘Part Two’ might yet assume a life of its own as a substantial stand-alone piece. It’s certainly worth a listen - Shibe’s performance is as revelatory as his relish for amplification is obvious. This was already evident on softLOUD, his outstanding second Delphian recital disc which juxtaposed seventeenth century Scottish lute music with some pretty confrontational electrified fare from the Bang-on-a Can composers among others; it deservedly won a 2019 Gramophone Award (it’s on DCD 34213).
There are a pair of fine couplings on this generously filled issue. Elegy for Esmeralda is an adaptation of an interlude from Paterson’s recent opera The Angel Esmeralda and again incorporates a part for Shibe’s electric guitar in the form of an introduction and epilogue – some of the shapes he pulls here recall the great Mancunian guitarist Vini Reilly, who as the mainstay of The Durutti Column made several wonderful albums for Factory Records. Paterson’s dark and ecstatic piece belies its brevity; the composer’s skilful deconstruction of the one word text (‘Esmeralda’) into vowel sounds (and its grief stricken repetition by the solo bass) maintains a compelling aura of burnished intensity which is expertly conveyed by the choir and reinforced by Shibe’s commentary.
Concluding the disc, poppies spread is an elegant acapella triptych which links texts by Flora Paterson and a fragment from Robert Burns’ Tam O’Shanter. In contriving this blend Lliam Paterson muses on the impact of changing nature upon the fragility of the human condition, the words of the composer’s mother somehow transforming the personal resonance of the texts into art of more universal application. The lightness of these little pieces counterintuitively suits the hints of gloom scattered about the second poem. The King’s College Choir excel in making Paterson’s challenging yet grateful writing for voices (which at times is pleasingly reminiscent of Judith Weir’s) sound far more straightforward than it is. The Delphian recording is warm and spacious.
This exceptional disc suggests that the praise which has been lavished upon Lliam Paterson’s output to date is not undeserved, irrespective of any personal caveats I may express regarding the architecture of the main work (these might in any case dissipate in time). It’s worth hearing for the outstanding ensemble of King’s College Choir’s as well as for Sean Shibe’s poised amplified contributions, which are quite possibly unprecedented for a choral piece on the scale of Say it to the Still World.