Tuesday 17 August 2021

'a time of enhanced creativity - and constrained opportunity' - Stuart MacRae's Prismatic

Stuart MacRae Prismatic

Stuart MacRae Prismatic

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
For this hauntingly atmospheric self-produced, self-performed album Stuart MacRae produces a sequence of striking quasi-improvisations rather different to his public persona.

'a time of enhanced creativity - and constrained opportunity'. That is how composer Stuart MacRae describes that last 18 months. Stuart MacRae's new album Prismatic, released on BandCamp represents something of fruits of this creativity. Nine tracks on which MacRae plays flutes, harmonium and electronics to create a haunting and rather intimate world.

MacRae explains in the booklet note that he has always had small projects, improvisations and recordings which remained unfinished on the computer seemingly separate from the rest of his 'public' work - music written often to commission and for public performance to an audience [his 2016 opera The Devil Inside with a text by Louise Walsh is a gripping memory, see my review]. These smaller projects are more private. But during lockdown, away from other musicians, MacRae (who confesses himself admiring of composer-performers) dug out his flute (he's had it since 1989 but often it has remained in its case), had the piano tuned and played the harmonium with greater focus than usual. He has also been listening to and recording the sound around him. Like many people in lockdown, MacRae became creative with what was available.

The main instrument on the tracks is the flute, and around this can be other instruments and electronics, with MacRae describing the process as organic, 'a contiguous compositional process: planning, composition, improvisation, electronic processing and re-composition are undertaken side by side in a kind of collage technique, flowing freely among each other. There are no scores except for a few isolated pitches jotted down.'

The result is haunting, atmospheric and somewhat otherworldly; for all the fact that there are sounds from the outside world there, and that we can hear the harmonium's pedals, these coalesce with the musical sounds to create a continuous flow. Rhythm is largely unimportant, the music simply flows and actually when I first heard the disc I imagined that MacRae had created it simply as electronics. But instead we have to imagine him building things up from a semi-improvised flute line. 

The titles are intriguing and don't give much away, we begin with just flutes in firstlings I, which has a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth, 'From this moment the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.' and the disc ends with firstlings II. In between we have the five-part prismatic which features flute, harmonium, electronics, and synth, but the music flows in such a way that we can almost cease to thing about individual timbres and they blend in to each other.

Gleanna Garadh involves a voice reciting a Gaelic poem, originally because MacRae was setting the poem in 2003 for Inverness Gaelic Choir (of which his parents were members) and he wanted to get the Gaelic right. And on the disc he pairs the rather crackly recording (made on a dictaphone) with his grandmother's harmonium. It feels like a haunting glimpse of the past. Then comes Thule, which refers to the land regarded as the farthest North by Roman and Greek cartographers; this has the strongest reference to other composers and there is something slightly Arvo Pärt-ish about MacRae's placement of the chords. The only piece on the disc were rhythms really count.

The music on the disc does not feel as if it was made by a composer in his own studio, nor does it feel like random assemblages of objects. Instead, there is a very focused creativity which might be different from what we have come to expect from the public persona of Stuart MacRae the Scottish composer, but which is just as compelling, rather haunting and not a little intriguing. 

As well as including MacRae's liner notes the package also includes a sequence of striking photos taken by MacRae, a visual commentary to those walks where he gathered his material.

Stuart MacRae (born 1976) - firstlings I
Stuart MacRae - prismatic I, II, III, IV, V
Stuart MacRae - Gleanna Garadh
Stuart MacRae - Thule
Stuart MacRae - firstlings II
Stuart MacRae (Yamaha flute; Estey Organ Co. American Organ; Reid-Sohn upright piano; Sculpture Synth; toy rattle; voice; compositions; arrangements; recordings; production; mastering; original artwork and design)
Recorded with AKG C214 condenser microphone; Zoom H6; MOTU Ultralite MkII audio interface; Sanyo Talk-Book Dictaphone; Logic Pro X; Sibelius Ultimate with NotePerformer; Audacity
1 CD [28:08]

Available from BandCamp

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