Thursday 6 February 2014

A new release from Metier brings intense and finely played performances of works by Kevin Malone that draw on responses to the tragedy of 9/11

Only in January this year I was reviewing Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers, an impressive and powerful work by any standards.

It is natural and appropriate that the horrific events in the United States on 11th September 2001 should draw a response from composers. In the history of classical music such life changing events have always had a resonance with composers.

Now from Metier Records come three works, that draw on responses to those events, by American composer, Kevin Malone Featuring the New World Ensemble  directed by the composer, the Manchester Sinfonia  directed by Richard Howarth , David Heyes  and Dan Styffe  (double basses), Christian Elliott (cello)  and Victoria Daniel (flute)   


msvcd 92106

Kevin Malone was born in New York and read mathematics and computer science at university before changing to a music degree programme. Between the awards of BMus in Analysis from the New England Conservatory in Boston and MMus in Composition from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for composition and saxophone studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. He also earned a PhD in Composition from Goldsmiths' College University of London.

The most influential composition teachers throughout his early studies were William Bolcom, Morton Feldman and Leslie Bassett.  He was Music Director of the Brecht Company in America in the 1980s during which time he also developed skills for composing for film.  He was also Music Director of the new music ensemble Cambridge Circus in the 1990s. 

Malone lives in Manchester, England where he is Director of Composition and Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Manchester.

Entitled The Music of 9/11 Vol.1, this new release opens with Eighteen Minutes (2002) for two double basses and string orchestra. Described as an ‘urban New York City concerto’ it is based on the number 18, the number of minutes that elapsed between the two aircraft collisions with the World Trade Centre towers. The exact construction of the piece is more fully explained in the booklet notes.

Although in one single movement, there are six parts with captions that relate to the exclamations of eye witnesses to the events, caught on videotape, at the very moment of the collisions.

Part I is captioned ‘Holy shit.’ Strident strings open this part before the double basses soon add their distinctive timbre. There is an element of minimalism as the string orchestra repeat their rapid phrases. There is just the right amount of dissonance to add a jarring note.

Part II is captioned ‘Flames are shooting out; smoke is pouring out.’ Upper strings add to the texture as the frantic phrases now begin to move rapidly around, the basses adding occasional touches until joining in a deep repetitive passage halfway through.  Longer drawn orchestral phrases lead into the next part.

Part III is captioned ‘We are just currently getting a look at the World Trade Centre. We have something which has happened here, flame and an awful lot of smoke from one of the towers. Whatever has occurred has just occurred, uh, within minutes, and, uh, we are trying to determine exactly what that is.’ There is a quiet gentle opening for strings before the basses interrupt. The strings begin to slide around, conveying the idea of sirens, as the basses add figurations. The music becomes more melodic and calm towards the end, quoting Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

Part IV is captioned ‘There are fire crews just screaming into this area from every conceivable direction.’ Basses play mournfully over the string orchestra in a moving elegy, often with the basses straining in the top register giving an emotional pull.

Part V is captioned ‘We have a number of floors on fire. It looked like a plane was aiming toward the building. Transmit a third alarm. We’ll have the staging area at Vessey and West Street.’ This brings sudden dissonances as the siren for strings return and the basses play an anguished theme. The music falls to a quiet moment before rising in a melancholy melody.

Part VI is captioned ‘What was that? Oh my God! Oh my…’ The final part opens with strings high up in an ascending motif. The cellos add a more melancholy note before the music becomes rhythmic with pizzicato basses and staccato string orchestra that eventually quietens to a hushed section, as though ruminating or reflecting on the events. This is a particularly poignant moment. The basses sound chords in unison as the strings echo the chords. Just before the end there is a sudden outburst to end.

The New World Ensemble with David Heyes and Dan Styffe (double basses) give this work an intense and finely played performance.

Requiem 77 (2012) for cello and tape recording looks at the other appalling event that day at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Malone visited Washington in 2012, making recordings of helicopters, jet aircraft and fountains around the Pentagon. It was a Senior Counsel for the 9/11 Commission that encouraged Malone to also use, for this composition, actual recording of the air traffic controllers searching for American Airlines Flight 77 before it crashed.

Requiem 77 opens with a questioning theme for cello before the recorded sounds of the Air Traffic Controller intersperses with actual messages as the cello weaves carefully nuanced textures and motifs. In some ways it is difficult to follow the cello line and take in the spoken text. I found myself, at first hearing, just listening to the mesmerizingly ‘ordinary’ sounds of the controller’s voice that preceded such an extraordinary and appalling event. The cello increases in passion as the music rises and falls in a fine flow of invention. Eventually the recording suddenly switches off as the cello continues on its way with odd little rhythmic motifs. When the recording returns it is with a repeated noise from the tape before fragmented extracts of the tapes are played. The tape stops then suddenly enters again with more fragmented messages together with an agitated cello theme that becomes increasingly dramatic. Again the recording ceases as the cello plays a quiet, reflective theme. Towards the end there is the recorded sound of running water and nature as the cello commences again with its solitary theme. A voice enters as the controller calls ‘America 77’ repeatedly – and we know we will not hear a response!

This is a strangely mesmerising and disturbing piece that repays repeated listening. Christian Elliott (cello) tackles this difficult piece wonderfully.

Angels and Fireflies (2011) for flute and orchestra takes us to the other tragic event that occurred on that appalling day, the crash in Pennsylvania of high jacked United Airlines Flight 93.

In four sections entitled Mountains, Fireflies, Angels and The Transambiguation of the Evening, this work opens with anguished strings, heavy with emotion. The flute enters, dancing around the dramatic strings in this meditation on this terrible tragedy. Eventually the music becomes gentler but soon the flute announces a spirited theme that dances around the orchestra before quietening. The increasingly dramatic strings build in dynamics in a very American sounding theme before falling to a quieter orchestral section. The flute eventually joins the lovely melody in an exquisite moment that leads to a solo flute passage. The orchestra rejoins but it is the solo flute that brings a quiet coda.

Angels and Fireflies receives an excellent performance from flautist, Victoria Daniel and the Manchester Sinfonia under Richard Howarth.

These works are excellently played by all the artists concerned. There is a fine recording and informative booklet notes by the composer. This disc, at just over 46 minutes in duration is maybe a little short on length, but it is full of immensely emotional content and, at mid price, deserves to be heard.

This is not an easy listen but very worthwhile and, at times, emotional nevertheless. 

No comments:

Post a Comment