Wednesday 15 February 2023

Seductive and magical moments: Sam Cave's exploration of music for the contemporary guitar enchants and intrigues

Sam Cave
Sam Cave

Outcast and the Pursuit of Happiness: Laurence Crane, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox, John Croft, Lisa Illean, Alastair Putt; Sam Cave; Performance Space, City University

Four guitars, five different tunings, six pieces; classical guitarist Sam Cave's intriguing programme including the premiere of Michael Finnissy's largest work for solo guitar alongside an array of seductive and magical moments

Last year, I enjoyed guitarist Sam Cave's rather magical disc of contemporary music for classical guitar, Refracted Resonance [see my review] so I was pleased to discover his recital on Tuesday 14 February 2023 in the performance space at the College Building of the City University in London. Entitled Outcast and the Pursuit of Happiness, the concert featured music by Laurence Crane, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox, John CroftLisa Illean and Alastair Putt including two world premieres and one first live performance. For the concert, Cave played four different guitars (two electric and two classical) in five different tunings.

We began with Laurence Crane's Bobby J, a 1999 work for electric guitar with a low C added to the guitar's tuning and using a simple volume pedal. This pedal was used to magical effect as the work consisted of a series of quiet chords, repeated in a hypnotic fashion and each one swelled and diminished using the pedal. It was a surprising and quietly subtle work, demonstrating the richness that the electric guitar can bring. The sound world was fascinating as you heard the initial hard-edged sound of the plucked string and then a gentle swell, and it was a work where small changes made a significant effect.

Next, we turned to classical guitar in conventional tuning, with Michael Finnissy's Outcast, a work from 2021 written for Cave and which is Finnissy's largest work for solo guitar to date. Finnissy took his inspiration from the imagery and structure of the ninth-century Welsh poem Claf as well as elements from the setting of the liturgical text Felix Namque by William Shelby (died 1584). However, the resulting sound world was entirely Finnissy's own and only occasionally, particularly towards the end, did you discern anything that seemed to point to the 16th century. 

In fact, the sound world was remarkably distinctive and evocative. Beginning with strummed chords that seemed to hang in the air, Finnissy gradually conjured melodic fragments, around which hung individual notes. The work functioned as a sort of set of divisions, to use an old term, each one punctuated by a return to the strumming. It was fascinating how Finnissy and Cave managed to draw evocative phrases from complex sequences of notes and for all the busyness of the work, it was rather contemplative with a rather nocturnal feel. This was the work's first live performance.

For John Croft's Felix Namque (after Thomas Tallis), Sam Cave turned to another classical guitar which had been re-strung and re-tuned so that the entire span of the strings was just an octave and it was clear from the first notes that this was anything but a conventional tuning. Croft had written the work specifically for Cave after Finnissy's work was known to use another setting of Felix Namque and this was the piece's first performance. Croft placed the individual notes almost like arpeggiated chords, but the distinctive tuning of the guitar gave the music a remarkably edgy feel to it, though each sequence of notes also had a rather evocative feel thanks to Cave's phasing. As the work developed both density and speed increased, with the tuning bringing real bite. But things unwound at the end, leaving us with the spareness of the opening, yet somehow changed.

Christopher Fox's The Pursuit Happiness was also written for Cave. Dating from 2020, the work was also inspired by Felix namque. For this work, Cave returned to his normally tuned classical guitar but had one string retuned, so that all the strings were in fourths. The work is a complex one. Cave played it with the guitar flat, his right hand either plucking the notes or strumming and his left hand using a bottleneck slide. But Fox notates the two independently, so the slides did not directly relate to the RH notes as we might have expected. So we had a set of plucked/strummed notes with slides following, and the sound world created a distant echo of the first piece. When Fox started strumming rhythmically, the piece moved almost into Latin-American territory and The Girl from Ipanema was not far away. The rhythms fitted this style of Latin-American dance, and for all the work's complexities the composer seems to have delighted in evoking this. This was the work's first performance.

Lisa Illean's Tiding from 2021 reverted to the electric guitar, but one differently tuned. Also, Cave used both a volume pedal and a capture pedal so that individual notes were able to be held and hang in the air. The result was quietly evocative as motivic fragments overlaid long sustained notes as if the music was a line being written in the sand. It was highly atmospheric with a sense of stasis to the music as if the movement was not going anywhere, and it ended with a wonderfully eerie slide.

The final work was by the late Alastair Putt (who died in 2022). I met Alastair several times when he sang in the choir of All Saints, Margaret Street and they performed my music, but most memorably we sang together in Tallis' Spem in Alium at a mutual friend's wedding when he did a sterling job of making sure that his amateur tenor did not go astray.

His Cuerdos was written for Sam Cave in 2017 and represented a return to a classical guitar in conventional tuning, but that is not to say that the work was conventional or ordinary. Not surprisingly, from the title, there was a Spanish feel to the work yet Putt created some remarkable intricate filigree textures, the LH sometimes plucking as well as the RH. Initial melodic fragments were gradually brought together to coalesce into a more complex texture. Complex, yet not dense as for all the way the work gathered speed, the writing remained intricate and filigree like, ending in rather a haunting manner.

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