Wednesday 14 December 2022

Manic energy and musical vision: Alex Paxton's ilolli-pop on nonclassical

Alex Paxton - ilolli-pop, Sometimes Voices, Corncrack Dreams, Mouth Music; Alex Paxton, Dreammusics Ensemble; nonclassical

Alex Paxton - ilolli-pop, Sometimes Voices, Corncrack Dreams, Mouth Music; Alex Paxton, Dreammusics Ensemble; nonclassical
Reviewed 12 December 2022

Welcome to the wonderfully imaginative, manically energetic world of Alex Paxton, music that never seems to sit still, taking us on journeys across myriad brilliant textures and timbres 

Composer and improvising trombonist Alex Paxton's new disc on nonclassical, ilolli-pop features a selection of Paxton's recent works all performed by Dreammusics Ensemble and Alex Paxton (improvised trombone solo, keyboards), James Larter (drum kit). The central work on the disc is ilolli-pop which Paxton wrote for Ensemble Moderne and which they premiered in 2020 and it was subsequently nominated for the 2022 Gaudeamus Composer Award. Alongside this are three shorter works, Sometimes Voices, originally commissioned by Hyper Duo and winner of the Chamber Music category in the 2021 Ivor Novello Awards, Corn-Crack Dreams, originally commissioned by the Nevis Ensemble and nominated for a 2021 Ivor Novello Award in the jazz category, and Mouth Music Take I.

ilolli-pop is in five movements and is written for the combination of ensemble and improvising trombonist (here Paxton himself) with the precisely notated instrumental parts allowing space for the improvising element. The instrumentation is imaginative and madcap. Paxton's world, no matter whom he is writing for, is full of energy and vivid colour (Hieronymus Bosch is a visual comparison that has come up before). There are times when you wonder what instruments you are listening to (ilolli-pop includes a distorted stylophone) and Paxton always seems to be able to combine high energy, with imagination and sheer verve. 

ilolli-pop begins with music that seems to be half serious, half sound-track for a children's show and throughout the work there are surprising juxtapositions, manic energy and stasis, disintegration and highly structured, with moments of high energy coming with an almost jump cut. Throughout there is space for Paxton's trombone, sometimes to the fore, sometimes receding. Everything is multi-layered, with different elements competing and contrasting, the result is a terrific roller-coaster journey.

Sometimes Voices was commissioned for Hyper Duo, a contemporary classical drum and keyboard duo. When I interviewed Alex last year [see my interview] he explained that the work is fully notated, but is based around groove music, and uses two keyboards, one synth and the other playing samples, but there are duck calls and kazoos in it too. There is a sense of interference here, the noise and dirt competing and overlaying the more melodic elements. There is an alternation between energy and stasis too, along with a brilliantly imaginative use of timbre and texture.

Corncrack Dreams was written for the Nevis Ensemble and the co-commissioner was the North Uist Distillery, based on the Hebridean island of North Uist where the corncrake lives. The bird evidently makes a rather grating noise, and Alex discovered a recording of lots of them and found the rhythms in the recording had a weird relationship to swing music, reminding him of what he refers to as 'juicy swings from oral music'. There is synth here too, as well as Alex playing a small tenor trombone from the 1900s! We begin with a sense of improvising trombone over the corncrake percussion, but other layers come in as the work develops in energy and vivacity.

The final work on the disc, Mouth Music take 1 puts the focus firmly on Alex as composer and performer as it is a work for improvising trombone. Here the sound world is wonderfully varied, can a single performer be doing this, creating all these different sounds, and using them to articulate such a wonderfully rich musical vision.

Alex Paxton - ilolli-pop
Alex Paxton - Sometimes Voices
Alex Paxton - Corncrack Dreams
Alex Paxton - Mouth Music take 1
Dreammusics ensemble - Alex Paxton (Solo Trombone), Alyson Frazier (Flute, Piccolo), Layla Köhler Baratto (Oboe, Cor Anglais), Alex Roberts (Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Eb Clarinet), Olivia Palmer-Baker (Bassoon, Contraforte), Zoë Tweed (French horn), Richard Blake (Trumpet), Benny Vernon (Trombone), Beibei Wang (Percussion), Joy Boole (Keyboard), Lloyd Coleman (Keyboard), Lasma Taimina (Violin), Clifton Harrison (Viola), Cecilia Bignall (Cello), Gwen Reed (Double Bass) 
Alex Paxton (improvised trombone solo, keyboards)
James Larter (drum kit)

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