CD Reviews

Martin Iddon – Pneuma

April 13, 2014

Another Timbre

Its been a while since I last wrote about a release on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label. No reason for this beyond the extreme tiredness and lack of time that has dogged my writing here over recent months. Since I last surveyed something on AT though the label has taken a bit of a partial swing towards  contemporary composition, and to be precise,  modern composition mostly by composers linked to UK academia. Knowing Simon quite well, this doesn’t surprise me, as possibly the most animated I have ever seen him has been at the Huddersfield Festival over the years. It has been interesting to watch how this slight shift in output has been received however, and if Simon’s recent declaration to me that he thought he had finally found “the right formula to bankrupt the label” was any kind of reflection on sales. Of the recent releases in this vein however, my favourite so far is probably Martin Iddon’s Pneuma collection of five short compositions.

I must admit that (unless anyone can tell me otherwise) I haven’t come across Iddon’s music before. A little googling reveals that he is a member of the music faculty at the University of Leeds but that much of his academic writing and study has been split between the American 20th Century avant grade and the Darmstadt School. Listening to his music here, I hear little of the former, but a whole lot of the latter influence on the work. The disc opens with a piece called pneuma.sarx, one of what seems to be a series of pieces that take at least their titles from the work of Alain Badiou, and appear to each focus around the use of the human voice.  The piece seems to be fully composed and is written for flute, cello and mezzo-soprano vocal, and I am reminded very strongly of Luigi Nono’s remarkable work Quando Stanno Morendo which is scored for very similar instrumentation and at least in its opening movements is not far from how Iddon’s piece here sounds- slow, quiet and brooding, almost menacingly so. While Nono’s masterpiece slowly develops into a horrifying monster of quite dramatic proportions however, pneuma.sarx maintains its hushed, breathy atmosphere throughout, with Alice Purton’s cello mostly staying in noteless dry scraping mode, Gavin Osborn’s flute hovering as soft, lengthy and somehow insistent sustained notes and Nina Whiteman’s voice hanging wordlessly from everything in a similar manner. On first listen, without having read anything about the work, its a very beautiful piece that unfolds itself gradually but retains a sense of unsettled rumination throughout that always seems to rise up throughout to frequently undermine any sensation of aesthetic prettiness and offer something more. It seems though, having read Reynell’s interview with Iddon at the AT website that the composer wrote the piece in a manner that made it particularly difficult to play. Not that the piece is particularly complicated to the ear, but that it demands a considerable degree of dexterity on behalf of the performers. It is clear then that this is from where the feeling of tension and difficulty in the music arises.

Head down amongst the stems and bells is a solo work for prepared piano played by Catherine Laws. This work is of much interest to me as it is inspired directly by a moment in Samuel Beckett’s Mercier and Camier,  and perhaps from a wider perspective is reflective of the musicality in Beckett’s prose. The title borrows from a moment in the novella that describes lying, attempting to sleep amongst a bed of heather. Beckett’s characters could often be found sleeping in ditches, or fields, and he often took to writing in a poetic manner about such experiences, summoning aural images of what could be heard when left to focus on little more than what you may hear in such a position. Iddon’s work here reflects this thinking and he uses amplification to draw out the minute, perhaps otherwise unheard tiny sounds from the inside of the piano as Laws knocks and rubs and taps at various parts of the instrument. The piece begins with a few moments of little else but tiny scuffing sounds, almost as if the unintended scraping of the human body reaching inside the instrument, and throughout the piece we are presented with what feels almost like a secret sound world, the inner workings of the music while the public presentation of it continues on its way outside. Lachenmann springs to mind, both through the brief little flurries of complexity that burst forth every so often but also more obviously in the search for the otherwise unheard potential of everyday instruments. Head down... is a truly excellent work that I found gave up more over repeated listens, but time and again I found myself wondering about how much of what I have heard was intentional, and how much the unavoidable, but usually hidden aural outcome of playing an instrument, an idea probably intentionally investigated by Iddon here.

Pneuma.kharis is a further work in the pneuma series, for baritone voice, trumpet, bass clarinet and trombone written for and performed by the New York ensemble Loadbang. Here the same feeling of visceral uncertainty prevails, but is this time it is cast by a much deeper, dense palette of sounds. The baritone, a sound I am usually very much averse to in music finds itself buried amongst the instrumentation, often subsumed by the heaviness of the sound but still breaking through often to give the piece a human quality that I suspect may otherwise have been absent, and in doing so unsettling the music further by adding this frail, less reliable and less easily abstracted element. While I prefer the lighter and more spacious approach of pneuma.sarx,  the intriguingly peculiar feeling of malcontent that that piece provided is also present here.

Danaë follows, a work for a string trio that apparently asks the three musicians (violin, viola, cello) to play using two bows, one in each hand, and gives the instruction that no musician may touch the fingerboard of their instrument, which would probably be difficult without a third hand anyway. The resulting work is a curious mass of squeals and cries, some clearly controlled, some more wild and approximate. Iddon talks in Reynell’s interview of a fascination with how children with no prior knowledge of how an instrument should be played might approach doing so, how removing the history and perceived rules of music might lead to a more natural form of experimentation. Danaë certainly sounds alien, as if broken away from the traditions of music, similar to how Lachenmann’s experiments must once have heard, though whether it results in anything musically satisfying is perhaps debatable. Trying to sit and listen here, I have dual images in my head of a string trio playing the music both “normally”, which seems inescapable as that is how we train ourselves to picture music being played but also with the restrictions that Iddon imposed continually reminding me of the truth of the situation. On first listen, before I had understood the detail of Iddon’s instructions I found myself wondering how on earth the work was scored. I assumed something similar to Lachenmann’s Pression for solo cello, but here Iddon has achieved something that is somehow more organic, arrived at through a disabling process rather than direct instruction to experiment with sound, and I think it is extremely interesting for that reason, even if musically it often ends up a bit of an earache.

The final hamadryads is a work for a vocal quintet performed by another New York ensemble ekmeles. The piece is based on a 15th century lament, with the work formed through various Pythagorean tuning processes and transformations that I will not claim to understand. The end result is a continual stream of fractionally tuned moans, wails and whispers, a text being sung but so slowly that it remains completely indistinguishable. Alongside though a series of electronic sounds are present, ringing tones and shimmers that are not mentioned in the liner notes but pitched to to compliment the vocals perfectly. This piece strikes me more as an exploration of the possibilities of tuning rather than an investigation of uncertainty and disconnection as the previous works suggested to me. It is doubtlessly a minutely detailed and remarkable compositional achievement but I find myself hearing it as little more than that, as the sense of unsettlement and danger that pervaded the preceding pieces isn’t there.

All in all Pneuma is a fascinating album that needs to be broken down, thought about and understood to some degree before it begins to repay the attention you pay to it. On first listen, without investigation, it felt decentred and unusual, but after reading more (and here is a fine example of how liner notes and interviews add light to otherwise invisible elements) the album becomes a very interesting series of studies indeed.

Comment (1)

  • simon reynell

    April 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks for the review, Richard. You were very nearly first.
    Just to clarify something about ‘hamadryads’, the final piece. There aren’t any electronics involved (or not that can be heard anyway). The sine-tone-like sounds are produced by the singers rubbing wet fingers on partially-filled wine glasses (each player has two glasses, I think, and each glass produces a particular tone determined by how much liquid is inside). The only electronic input in the performance is that – due to the complexity of the tunings and microintervals involved in the singing parts – the players all have ear pieces with sine tones giving the pitch at which they should be singing. In practice the earpieces are quite off-putting and create difficulties for the singers, becoming another example of Iddon creating obstacles for the performers of his music to overcome (though unintentionally this time).

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