Wednesday 11 August 2021

Dark thoughts & anarchic energy: Six Degrees of Separation represents the response of six young composers to 2020

Six Degrees of Separation; Patrick John Jones, Christian Drew, Stef Conner, Emma-Kate Matthews, Chris McCormack, Alex Paxton; London Symphony Orchestra, Darren Bloom; NMC

Six Degrees of Separation
; Patrick John Jones, Christian Drew, Stef Conner, Emma-Kate Matthews, Chris McCormack, Alex Paxton; London Symphony Orchestra, Darren Bloom; NMC

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 August 2021
Face with 2020's lockdown, the six composers of the LSO's Panufnik Composers Scheme were invited to write short ensemble pieces, recorded last December under lockdown

The six young composers who joined the LSO's Panufnik Composers Scheme in 2020 had hardly begun their planned year when events were shutdown. Colin Matthews, composition director for the scheme and founder of NMC Recordings, felt that something should be done in compensation. The result is this disc of short ensemble pieces recorded under lockdown conditions in December 2020. Six Degrees of Separation on NMC Recordings features Patrick John Jones' The Fun Will Never End, Christian Drew's See Slow Blue, Stef Conner's Hymn to a Head, Emma-Kate Matthews' Remote Overlap, Chris McCormack's Silver Traces, and Alex Paxton's Dadd's Fairies performed by members of the London Symphony Orchestra with conductor Darren Bloom.

Patrick John Jones describes The Fun Will Never End as rather different from the rest of his music, understandably so given that it was written in 2020. The title comes from a song in a children's television programme, The Amazing World of Gumball, and relates to what the composer describes as 'its combination of enthusiastic, upbeat energy and dark undertones'. The music is full of rhythmic patterns, almost dance-like, yet there is counterpoint for the instrumentallines, imaginative use of timbres and a perky lightness.

Christian Drew's See Slow Blue was inspired partly by the New Jersey-based ambient, noise rock, shoegazing band, Yo La Tengo, and partly by a fascinating for what can be achieved from just two notes. The result is spare with two lines intertwining with added percussion which at times sounds like the evocation of a Swiss mountainside. It is a thoughtful, intense piece, as much about what isn't there as what is, silence, just two notes, yet it creates a remarkable atmosphere.

The head referred to in Stef Conner's Hymn to a Head is inspired by the chance to reread Melville's Moby Dick during the quiet of 2020 and the resultant conjuring of Ahab’s speech "Speak, thou vast and venerable head!" for a brass quintet. It is a thoughtful piece, using the brass in an intriguing way which manages to be both traditional and modern.

Emma-Kate Matthews' Remote Overlap explores ideas of communication and distance, something that passed through all our minds during 2020's lockdown and forced distancing. Spare and intense, unlike the first two works on the disc, this music is more about timbre and texture than pitch, the high-pitched instrumental whines against the dark rumble of the low piano. The two seeming to operate not quite by the same action.

Chris McCormack's Silver Traces for string trio, piano and dual percussion has two planes of operation, a grounded reality (initially the strings) and a halo of 'unreal' (pitched percussion and piano). The initial sounds are delectably seductive, but the drama comes as the two realms exert a pull on each other, transforming over time with McCormack's background as a recording engineer coming into the soundworld of the piece.

The final work in the disc has Richard Dadd’s painting The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke as one of its inspirations. But Alex Paxton's Dadd's Fairies seems to begin in Ireland with some folk-dancing, yet this moves on into what can only be termed a joyful mashup. Paxton describes it as 'a gayslang-Grindr-like-homoerotic crunch (like Daddy meets Twink-like kind of vibe)', which itself might need a bit of translation for some. But the music has such an engaging energy and Ivesian imagination that you hardly need worry about the details. 

Performances are uniformly excellent and the album betrays no sense of the challenging conditions under which it was created. Having been commissioned specifically by the LSO Panufnik scheme during 2020 the pieces represent a variety of responses to 2020, but what comes over is the sheer joy each of the composers take in the timbre and textures of music, the vibrant colours and intense thoughtfulness, there are dark thoughts but there is also anarchic energy.

Patrick John Jones - The Fun Will Never End † [6’28]
Christian Drew - See Slow Blue [6’12]
Stef Conner - Hymn to a Head [6’38]
Emma-Kate Matthews - Remote Overlap [6’30]
Chris McCormack - Silver Traces † [5’10]
Alex Paxton - Dadd's Fairies † [5’27]

Members of the London Symphony Orchestra
(Gareth Davies flute, Olivier Stankiewicz oboe, Chris Richards clarinet, Tim Jones horn, Niall Keatley trumpet, David Elton trumpet, Peter Moore trombone, Ben Thompson tuba, Neil Percy percussion, Sam Walton percussion, David Jackson percussion, Liz Burley piano, Carmine Lauri violin, Julian Gil Rodriguez violin, Tom Norris violin, Edward Vanderspar viola, Rebecca Gilliver cello)
Darren Bloom conductor †
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London on 19-21 December 2020
NMC DL3046 1CD [36'25]

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