Friday 20 May 2022

Magical places: Sam Cave's Refracted Resonance explores contemporary music for classical guitar

Refracted Resonance: Tristan Murail, George Holloway, Christopher Fox, Horaţiu Rădulescu, Sam Cave; Sam Cave; Metier

Refracted Resonance:
Tristan Murail, George Holloway, Christopher Fox, Horaţiu Rădulescu, Sam Cave; Sam Cave; Metier
(★★★★½) Reviewed 18 May 2022

A rather magical disc in which classical guitarist and composer Sam Cave presents music by five contemporary composers that takes the guitar to some evocative and aetherial places

This disc from guitarist Sam Cave, Refracted Resonance on metier, features six contemporary works for classical guitar, each of which explores, in a different way, the possibilities of sound and texture that the instrument can offer. So we have Tristan Murail's Tellur, George Holloway's Guitar Sonata and Second Guitar Sonata, Christopher Fox's Chile, Horaţiu Rădulescu's Subconscious Wave and Sam Cave's own Refracted Meditations III.

Cave begins his introductory note in the CD booklet with a quotation from Julian Bream, made in a 1976 BBC documentary, "…plucked sound has a remarkable quality because the actual pluck is the apex of the sound, and thereafter it dies, and if you are playing a phrase of six or seven notes you are actually dealing with six or seven births and six or seven deaths….the excitement is also in the space between the notes and therein lies the poetry of plucked sound…". And it is this concept, these concepts that are embodied in much of the music here.

Sam Cave is an English guitarist and composer; he studied at the Royal College of Music and his studies have extended to studies with Michael Zev-Gordon, Michael Finnissy and Craig Ogden. Sam is currently a tutor in guitar at Brunel University London, he has been a guest lecturer in composition for guitar at Coventry University and a lecturer in composition and orchestration at Kingston University. Sam plays on a 'super-concert guitar' by Dutch luthier Jeroen Hilhorst.

Cave begins with Tristan Murail's Tellur, a work that the composer describes as beginning "as a kind of wager: how can one produce the long sound continua necessary for my work on procedures, transitions and evolutions, on an instrument that produces brief, plucked sounds?" The answer lay in a strumming technique used in flamenco! Murail also uses different ways of producing sounds on the strings, as well as different tunings. 

The result is a delicate, haunting work where the almost unpitched sounds of the strings being plucked can be as important at the pitches produced, and it is fascinating how a technique so familiar from flamenco can be used in a way so far removed from that style. Much of the work is meditative, concerned with small things, yet is massive in scope.

George Holloway studied at Worcester College, Oxford, and the University of Southampton; he studied composition with Robert Saxton and Michael Finnissy, and received guidance from Michael Zev Gordon, Chen Qigang, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Thea Musgrave. He became the first foreign head of department in any Chinese conservatory and is currently assistant professor of composition in the department of Ethnomusicology, Nanhua University, in Taiwan.

George Holloway's Guitar Sonata was written for Sam Cave and the work explores the contrasts between clouds of harmonics and normal fretted chords. The work also uses microtonal tuning of the strings in order to access "certain spectral harmonies that imitate the pitches of the harmonic series." 

Holloway's sonata, like the Murail, is concerned with the details, the evocative small things. His use of harmonics means that the sound world is aetherial and spectral. He also uses quite a remarkably complex rhythmic layout, which Cave makes into a wonderfully free line. 

Christopher Fox is Emeritus Professor at Brunel University, having previous been a member of the composition staff of the Darmstadt New Music Summer School and member of the Music Department at the University of Huddersfield, before joining Brunel University London as Professor of Music. His guitar piece Chile uses a rhythmic vocabulary based on Latin-American popular music, in particular the use of additive rhythms and at the time of writing (1991) Chile had a particular political significance too. Fox says of the work "The recurrent playing technique in the piece is the alternate sounding and muting of the strings and, for me at least, this became a metaphor for the alternation of democratic freedom and its suppression in the lives of the people of Chile until the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. The music’s fluctuation between more or less repetition – between phrases that move forward and phrases that close in on themselves – has a similar expressive purpose."

Fox's piece sounds more conventionally classical guitar, yet as we can see from his introduction the music references all sorts of complex extra-musical concepts, and his use of Latin American rhythms makes it very appealing.

Holloway's Second Guitar Sonata was inspired by his experience of the Trinity Church of Gergeti in the shadow of the Mount Kazbegi in Georgia. Not just the beauty of the place, but the extraordinary dry acoustic of the church. The piece is haunting and rather beautiful, experimenting with the way the notes die, the material very free indeed.

Romanian composer Horaţiu Rădulescu studied violin with a pupil of Enescu as well as studying composition at Bucharest Academy of Music with some of the leading figures of the newly emerging avant garde. Upon graduation in 1969 Rădulescu left Romania for the West, and settled in Paris, becoming a French citizen in 1974. In the early 1970s he attended classes given by Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Xenakis at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, and by Ferrari and Kagel in Cologne.

Subconscious Wave was written in 1984, for guitar and taped digital sound. It is his only work for guitar, the strings are microtonally retuned and the performer creates a wide range of natural harmonics, though at times the strings are bowed too! There are times when the music plays tricks as the ear fails to differentiate between guitar and tape. Another wonderfully evocative piece; the description of it can sound rather complex, dry and academic but Cave brings a lovely freedom to it as well as a fine ear for the timbres and textures.

We finish with Sam Cave's own piece, Refracted Meditations III, one of an unfinished suite of short meditative pieces for guitar, a gentle work which explores some of the ideas raised in the earlier pieces.

Sam Cave (photos Saga Images, John Croft)
Sam Cave (photos Saga Images, John Croft)

This is a disc where composers take the contemporary guitar in a variety of directions, yet there are commonalities too and Cave brings these out. There is a wonderful ear for timbre here as well as the magical harmonies and harmonics, but perhaps Cave's greatest achievement is to make this complex and technically challenging music seem remarkably free and natural

Tristan Murail (born 1947) - Tellur (1977) [10:05]
George Holloway (born 1983) - Guitar Sonata (2009-11) [8:32]
Christopher Fox (born 1955) - Chile (1991) [11:04]
George Holloway - Second Guitar Sonata (2011-14) [8:33]
Horaţiu Rădulescu (1942-2008) - Subconscious Wave, Op. 58 (1984) [13:03]
Sam Cave (born 1987) - Refracted Meditations III (2018) [2:56]
Recorded Church of the Ascension, Timbercroft Lane, Plumstead, London, on 9 November 2017, 21 February 2018, 26 November 2018
METIER MSV 28586 1CD [54:39]

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