Monday 22 November 2021

Light of Shore: debut disc from Belfast-based composer Anselm McDonnell

Anselm McDonnell Light of Shore; Cahal Masterson, Isabelle O'Connell, William Cole, Chris Roberts, Martin Johnson

Anselm McDonnell Light of Shore; Cahal Masterson, Isabelle O'Connell, William Cole, Chris Roberts, Martin Johnson

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Past and present intertwine in Belfast-based Anselm McDonnell's debut disc featuring a series of solo suites that challenge us both musically and intellectually

Anselm McDonnell is a composer of Irish/Welsh heritage who lives in Belfast, and his debut album Light of Shore, released on his own label, features a series of solo works which examine stories from the past and how they impact the present. The disc features suites for solo piano (Cahal Masterson and Isabelle O'Connell), double bass and electronics (William Cole), guitar (Chris Roberts) and cello and electronics (Martin Johnson).

McDonnell studied at both Queen's University, Belfast and Cardiff University, and in 2020 complete a PhD in Music Composition at Queen's University supervised by Piers Hellawell. He is also an award-winning guitarist, performing contemporary works on electric and classical guitars.

We begin with the piano suite Ceaselessly into the past, written for Cahal Masterson who performs it here. The work is in four movements, 'Red Branches', 'Lorica', 'Fomorian Columns', and 'Alban Hefin, Light of Shore' and represents McDonnell's "attempt to grapple with and examine some of those aspects of identity in my own music, reflecting on the past that has formed who I am as a person and as a composer", so the pieces interweave stories from the past with McDonnell's reflections. The result is intriguing, and certainly not a cosy evocation of fireside stories. 'Red Branches' is a high energy toccata but with uneven rhythms in the left hand, its power (and perhaps violence) broken by moments of pause. And McDonnell talks about the movement being inspired by paramilitary activity in the area where he grew up. The past is more explicit in 'Lorica', whose name refers to a prayer recited for protection, and the past is clear in the music too with a sense folk music and neo-Baroque outlines. 'Fomorian Columns' is named for a supernatural race in Irish mythology, enemies of Ireland's first settlers. The music is restless, with strong harmonies. McDonnell does not shy away from more melodic material but here is is heard in the context of complexity. At times the intensity of Masterson's performance seems to strain the very sound of the piano. Finally 'Alban Hefin, Light of Shore' (the phrase Alban Hefin is Welsh for Summer Solstice) features strong contrasts between melody and hard-edged harmony, and between timbres. For McDonnell the title represents the idea of emerging hope, and we sense the music struggling to achieve this.

Shards on the Beach is written for double bass and electronics, here performed by William Cole. The work is a reflection on the environmental impact of littering on Welsh beaches. We begin with just the double bass, bald, plain and rather plaintive, then the electronics adds various layers and McDonnell explores variations in timbre more than pitch or rhythm, and the result is a complex soundscape, including spoken elements. As a musical work it is very much a solo tour de force from Cole, but the underlying feeling of manipulation and disturbance creates a world which is unsettling.

Eyewitnesses to His Majesty is a suite for guitar, performed by Chris Roberts. It is a substantial work, written for the composer's own instrument (he premiered some of the movements in 2017). Each movement is named after one of Christ's disciples, seven in all, 'Bartholomew, the Scholar', 'Simon, the Zealot', 'James, Son of Thunder', 'Peter', 'John, Son of Thunder', 'Judas, who betrayed him', 'Thomas, Didymus'. That we are not listening to a religious suite is immediately apparent in the first movement, which is something of a 'wrong note' waltz, an intriguing piece. It is clear that in the piece, McDonnell uses the guitar to evoke a series of emotions and moods, and it is intriguing to try and link these to the characters of the various disciples, We move between different influences on the guitar repertoire (there are hints of Spanish guitar in some of the early movements), but also McDonnell is exploring the wide range of timbres and textures the instrument can produce. 'Peter' is, unsurprisingly, the most dramatically intense movement, whilst 'John, Son of Thunder' seems to be channelling intricate polyphony, and then 'Judas' takes us into the realms of timbres which are a long way from classical. And in the final movement, we sense McDonnell relishing distinctive elements to the instrument's sound.

We move back to the piano for On a Stone Pillow, Jacob Dreamt of Salvation, performed by Isabelle O'Connell for whom the work was written in 2018. The music feels very descriptive, as if we could trace the outlines of the Bible story in the music, by turns romantic and expressionist with some very intricate textures. Rather impressively, this was McDonnell's first work for solo piano.

Three Words for Light is a three-movement suite for cello and electronics performed here by Martin Johnson, who is principal cellist of of the RTÉ NSO and for whom the work was written, through the CMC Ireland’s Creative Partnership Scheme for 2021. The titles are Irish phrases for various manifestations of light: will-o’-wisps, forked lightning, and the white light of dawn on the cusp of sunrise, taken from Irish journalist Manchán Magan’s book Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape. We begin with a sense of free improvisation in the cello, enhanced by the live electronics, but the second movement moves us to moments of extreme violence with distortions of the sound, whilst the final movement brings out a folk-like melody in the cello.

This is a substantial and thoughtful disc, McDonnell's music is not always an easy listen, and perhaps the contrasts and complexities that it contains are a musical reflection of multi-layered nature of what it means to be a composer in a community as complex as Northern Ireland. The performances on the disc are all first rate, and it is clear that McDonnell's music can be technically demanding, but extremely rewarding.

Anselm McDonnell - Light of Shore
Ceaselessly into the Past
Shards on a Beach
Eyewitnesses of his Majesty
On a Stone Pillow, Jacob Dreamt of Salvation
Three Words for Light

Cahal Masterson (piano)
William Cole (double bass)
Chris Roberts (guitar)
Isabelle O'Connell (piano)
Martin Johnson (cello)
Recorded in New York, Belfast, Murcia, and Abergavenny during the first few months of 2021
Produced with support of Moving On Music, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Queen's University Belfast
1 CD [86:00] - Available from BandCamp

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