Friday 23 October 2020

Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett: Psychedelia from NMC

Ed Bennett Psychedelia; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, David Brophy, Kate Ellis, Decibel, Daniele Rosina, Orkest de Ereprijs, Wim Boerman, Jack McNeil, Eliza McCarthy; NMC
Ed Bennett Psychedelia; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, David Brophy, Kate Ellis, Decibel, Daniele Rosina, Orkest de Ereprijs, Wim Boerman, Jack McNeil, Eliza McCarthy; NMC

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A disc of music for orchestra and for ensemble by Irish composer Ed Bennett makes for an exciting ride, full of energy

Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett. Bennett's new disc on NMC, Psychedelia features five of Bennett's pieces, Freefalling, Song of the Books, Psychedelia, Organ Grinder and Magnetic played by RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Brophy, Bennett's own ensemble Decibel with Kate Ellis (cello) and Daniele Rosina (conductor), Orkest de Ereprijs and conductor Wim Boerman, Jack McNeill (bass clarinet) and Eliza McCarthy (piano). All the pieces, in their various different ways, explore Bennett's seeming fascination for rhythm and energy, insistent textures and rhythmic contrasts.

Freefalling starts us off with a bang. The work is an evocation of Felix Baumgartner's 2012 world-record free-fall, performed here by RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Brophy. Bennett does not assail the ear, he is fascinated by multiple moving lines and creates his sense of movement and energy from remarkably simple means. This work introduces us to a number of Bennett tropes on the disc, polyrhythms, the use of blocks of colour and texture, and a fascination for applying instrumental glissandi to cut across horizontal textures of rhythm. The resulting sound has a massiveness but a sense of propulsion too. After the initial rush there are quieter moments, but the excitement is never far away.

Ed Bennett
Ed Bennett
Song of the Books is the longest work on the disc. Written for solo cello, electronics and ensemble it is played here by Decibel with Kate Ellis (cello) and Daniele Rosina (conductor). The work uses the traditional tune Amhrán na Leabhar which commemorates the loss of a cherished collection of books belonging to the nineteenth century poet, Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (who, perhaps significantly, worked at a Hedge school in Kerry secretly teaching children Irish history and folklore). 

But Bennett stretches his material out and this work is anything but folk-ish. The excitement here is made up of multiple layers of rhythms, which coalesce into a form of stasis over the top of which Kate Ellis' solo cello holds intense high notes. The second movement is built from spare, isolated chords which are allowed to overlap and resonate. The third returns to the idea of multiple constantly moving lines creating a sense of stasis with a dramatic solo cello rising out of it. Bennett gradually tightens the ratchet to create a movement which is intense and ennervating.

Psychedelia, which was premiered in 2017 by played by RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra  and Thomas Ades, is here performed by the orchestra conducted by David Brophy. The work begins with a complete change of mood. The texture is open and sustained, with hardly any sense of rhythm at all, but textures get denser and more intense as polyrhythms develop, but then it all evaporates again.

Organ Grinder is for midi organ and an ensemble of brass, winds, percussion and electric and bass guitars, here played by Orkest de Ereprijs conducted by Wim Boerman. The work begins with a contrast between moments of intense polyrhythms and extravagant gestures, and more sustained moments, but it is the energy which comes dominate, and we have the excitement of blocks of different energetic textures pitted against each other with the organ gradually joining in with its own distinctive contribution.

The final work Magnetic is boiled down to just bass clarinet (Jack MacNeil) and piano (Eliza McCarthy), but it is still full of Bennett's familiar concerns though stripped back to essentials. The piano is prepared with sheets of paper laid across the strings to create a buzzing percussive sound, so the range sound and colour is greater than might be expected. The way Bennett uses quite a sinuous melody on the clarinet rather creates an oriental, exotic atmosphere at times.

Ed Bennett's sound world is a distinctive one. As described by Stephen Graham in his booklet note it is the sound world of someone interested in insistent, trancing rhythmic texture and has elements in common with musicians from techno producers to post-minimalist composers to thrash metal bands. But Bennett introduces subtlety too, and his textures are always full of remarkable details, if they were not so loud they would shimmer.

Performances are uniformly excellent and all the performers bring a wonderful vividness and ear for detail to Bennett's sound world. Do give it a try.

Ed Bennett - Freefalling
Ed Bennett - Song of the Books
Ed Bennett -
Ed Bennett - Organ Grinder
Ed Bennett - Magnetic
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Brophy
Kate Ellis (cello)
Decibel, conductor Daniele Rosina
Orkest de Ereprijs, conductor Wim Boerman
Jack MacNeil (bass clarinet)
Eliza McCarthy (piano)
RTÉ Studio 1, Dublin on 12 June 2019, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in June 2016 and 11 February 2020, Orgelpark, Amsterdam on 14 June 2013
NMC D257 1 CD [78.13]

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