Friday 19 August 2022

Different ways of doing things: Michael Wolters' Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles from Birmingham Record Company

Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles - music by Michael Wolters, Kunling Liu, Luke Harrison, Poor Northern; Thallein Ensemble, Daniele Rosina, Suzie Purkis, Michael Wolters, Paul Norman, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth; Birmingham Record Company

Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles
 - music by Michael Wolters, Kunling Liu, Luke Harrison, Poor Northern; Thallein Ensemble, Daniele Rosina, Suzie Purkis, Michael Wolters, Paul Norman, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth; Birmingham Record Company
Reviewed 19 August 2022 (★★★)

Less of a concert than a happening, this disc is a musical evocation of what sounds to have been a event sui generis

Sometimes, to the need to explain something, to discuss its background and context, can seem so laborious and there is a danger that the very explanation will remove some of the force and power of the original. Sometimes, it is better just to listen. 

A new disc from Birmingham Record Company featuring music by the contemporary composer Michael Wolters is one such. Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles requires something of an explanation as to its name, form and content, but perhaps we should simply sit back and enjoy. The disc features music by Michael Wolters, alongside works by Kunling Liu, Luke Harrison, Poor Northern (aka Paul Norman) and Difficult Listening, performed by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's Thallein Ensemble, Daniele Rosina conductor, Suzie Purkis mezzo soprano, Paul Norman voice, Michael Wolters voice and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth conductor.

In November 2021, there was a concert at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to celebrate the 50th birthday of composer Michael Wolters, who is deputy head of composition at the Conservatoire. The concert was hosted by Wolters, performing as drag character Aria Cuntata, singing, lip-syncing and telling stories. The whole project was created around the "theme of 'fake news' blending music and stories to explore our past and present through a queer lens while investigating gender, racial and socio-economic imbalance in our cultural history". Even the drag character's name requires elucidation, whilst it is quite obviously a pun, the name is actually made up of made up of two Italian words: aria refers to a solo vocal piece with orchestral accompaniment, while cuntata is the past participle of the old Italian cuntare meaning to tell (a story).

This disc is a musical reflection of that show, new music and newly arranged music from the show written mostly by Wolters, but also including works from young composers Kunling Liu, Luke Harrison, Poor Northern (aka Paul Norman) and Difficult Listening. The idea is to offer alternative takes on established musical genres, and a key aspect of the original show was to explore more accessible performance formats, to create an event that allowed access to those who might traditionally feel left out of art music concerts. Of course, this becomes more difficult on disc, without the dramatic and visual contexts, the story telling.

What we have on this disc is a sequence of works, beginning with Wolters' Overture and ending with his There are more of them than us - a Queer Concerto for Nine Saxophones and Orchestra. In between we have Wolters' four Lieder Deutsche Natur plus his other vocal pieces RegentrudeRondeau à Ismène, Antigone Antigone, and Become Invisibleand instrumental pieces Interlude, Hamburg Port Bulk Handling, and Gulf Stream. Plus Kunling Liu's Shapes between Shapes and Luke Harrison's Music for keeping dogs calm or for dogs to enjoy, and Poor Northern's You are all Kunst.

The concerto was not in fact part of the original Aria Cuntata performance, so what we have is a two-part presentation, the sequence of works that makes up Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles, performed by the Thallein Ensemble, conducted by Daniele Rosina with Suzie Purkis, Paul Norman, Michael and Wolters, and a live recording of the dress rehearsal of the concerto, performed by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

So, having got all that out of the way, let's listen to the music.

We begin with Wolters' Overture, originally written in 2017 and based on Telemann’s Suite for recorder and strings in A minor. It combines a sense of period influence with regular rhythms and repetition in a way that evokes early Michael Nyman. Other influences are hinted at in Wolters' four Lieder deutscher Natur, performed by Sue Perkis. Wolters' own German texts mix fragments of nature with images from his own upbringing. The result seems to merge the idea of Kurt Weill-inspired cabaret with elements of the neo-Baroque along with some more expressionist elements. There is perhaps something slightly self-conscious about the pieces as Wolters deliberately refracts ideas of the Romantic song.

His song Regentrude (sung by Sue Perkis) uses an epigrammatic text by Theodor Stimm, which Wolters sets in snatched phrases over throbbing accompaniment, so that it is more about the effect than particular melody or pitch. Two of Wolters' vocal works seem to move things closer towards the pop influence, and it is perhaps notable that he describes one of his major influences as Laurie Anderson. Both Rondeau à Ismène and Antigone, Antigone combine intriguing contemporary minimalist influences with a pop sound, including electronically treated voices, that results in two works which seem to almost move into the Pet Shop Boys' territory. And this is again true of You're all Kunst which is a by Poor Northern (Paul Norman) and arranged by Difficult Listening (Michael Wolters & Paul Norman).

Wolter's other three instrumental pieces on the disc, InterludeHamburg Port Bulk Handling and Gulfstream, all demonstrate the remarkable range of intriguing textures that he can create just by juggling multiple motifs repeated at different speeds and rhythms, and the results are always appealing and engaging.

Kunling Liu's Shapes between Shapes is perhaps more uncompromising, slow, intense and spare, whilst Luke Harrison's Music for keeping dogs calm or for dogs to enjoy does exactly what it says on the tin and was written with the intention of helping dogs to calm down!

Wolters' There are more of them than us – a Queer Concerto for 9 Saxophones & Orchestra has a metaphysical element to it along with a number of visual elements in its presentation. Wolters writes about this more extensively on a website devoted to the work,

It is in five movements, and is closer to a concerto grosso in form rather than a Romantic concerto, and Wolters increases these links by basing three of the five movements on music by Telemann. The slow opening movement creates some very appealing textures from its Telemann and there were moments when the movement seemed to be almost one of Stokowski's orchestral arrangements, but Wolters also mixes in musical disruptions. The second movement is fast and vivid, Wolters very much in Michael Nyman mode. With the third movement we seem to move back to Telemann but the disruptions that Wolters introduces include the saxophones first disturbing and then pulling the music in a different direction. The fourth movement is an up tempo, almost big-band number whilst in the finale we return to Telemann in one of Wolters large-scale romantic interpretations that seems to go deliberately awry.

The interdisciplinary, cross-arts nature of Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles seems to mitigate against pure aural pleasure. Both it and the concerto seem to have extra-musical, visual and other elements which the musical pleasures of the disc do not quite make up for. [you can catch the entire event on YouTube] That said, there are some intriguing elements hear and perhaps Wolters' ought to have been encouraged to have included more disruptive elements. But do give it a try, here is a very distinctive voice who insists that there are different ways of doing things.

Aria Cuntata and the Low Miracles
Michael Wolters - Overture
Kunling Liu - Shapes between Shapes
Michael Wolters - Lieder Deutscher Natur
Luke Harrison - Music for keeping dogs calm
Michael Wolters - Regentrude
Michael Wolters - Interlude
Michael Wolters - Rondeau a Ismene
Michael Wolters - Antigone, Antigone
Michael Wolters - Hamburg Port Bulk Handling
Michael Wolters - Gulf Stream
Poor Northern -You're All Kunst
Michael Wolters - There are more of them than us – a Queer Concerto for 9 Saxophones & Orchestra 
Thallein Ensemble
Daniele Rosina (conductor)
Sue Perkis (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Wolters (voice)
Paul Norman (voice)
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth (conductor)

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