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Timothy O’Dwyer (after Anthony Braxton): Transbraxton I
James Dillon: Todesengel: Diffraction
Brian Ferneyhough: Intermedio alla ciaconna
Dominik Karski: Overflow
Aaron Cassidy: memento/memorial
Richard Barrett: Codex IX

Members of ELISION:
Manuel Nawri – conductor
Richard Barrett – electronics
Daryl Buckley – electric guitar
Jeff Hannam – sound spatialisation
Richard Haynes – clarinets
Michael Hewes – sound spatialisation
Graeme Jennings – violin
Genevieve Lacey – recorders
Benjamin Marks – trombones
Peter Neville – percussion
Paula Rae – flutes
Peter Veale – oboe
Tristram Williams – trumpets, flugelhorn

King’s Place, 8 February 2010

When your repertory is so full of solo works, as ELISION’s undoubtedly is, there is a tricky programming balance to strike between these and any ensemble pieces. But, at the same time, many of the composers who ELISION play explore our understanding of ‘solo’ and ‘ensemble’, and in this concert both Barrett and Karski made a virtue of this juxtaposition.

In Karski’s quartet for percussion, oboe, trumpet and trombone the percussion played a role clearly independent of the three winds, but the balance between the solo and the trio was such that neither sounded especially prominent, although the chrome and steel glitter of the percussion writing was much more arresting to the ear. However, this remained a static relationship and, once it was established, the piece showed too little interest in exploring this or other aspects of its form or material.

Like the other Codex pieces, and the FOKT series, Barrett’s Codex IX is a composition-improvisation hybrid in which certain global parameters – texture types, entry and exit points, ensemble groupings – are determined, but the details of execution are left to the performers. The last of these parameters, articulated as the fluid arrangement of solos, trios and quintets within the larger, nine-piece ensemble, was a fundamental part of the work’s composed grammar.

How successfully this played out was contingent upon a number of factors, including eyelines from the audience to the players. The piece was given in the round with the players facing inward and the audience around them. From where I sat several players were obscured and I don’t believe it a coincidence that the two I had most clearly in sight (percussionist Peter Neville and recorder player Genevieve Lacey) gave the most valuable and interesting contributions to my hearing of the piece: one duet between the two, played on sopranino recorder and a bowed polystyrene block, was strikingly beautiful.

On to those solos, and one duet for clarinet and vibraphone, James Dillon’s Todesengel. I’ve heard this piece live before and it didn’t impress me then either. No reflection on the performance by Neville and Richard Haynes (clarinet), which was lively, detailed and immaculately rehearsed, but it just feels like a piece written on autopilot. A very skilled autopilot who can write brilliant counterpoint that clicks in and out of focus, but uninspiring nevertheless.

The other Dillon, his Diffraction for piccolo, played by Paula Rae, dates from 12 years earlier and was much more strongly characterised. It was less polished, too, but in its sweeps of harmonics and drooping glissandi it was trying to coax something new and unexpected from the instrument, and thus immediately felt like it had something to say.

Violinist Graeme Jennings took two solos. The first, Timothy O’Dwyer’s Transbraxton I is based on the first five minutes of Anthony Braxton’s alto saxophone improvisation To Composer John Cage (8F). As I understand it, the pitch material is essentially the same, but the rhythms have been transcribed into proportional notation. What also came across was the force of Braxton’s playing: the violin might not seem a promising instrument for such a transcription, but Jennings’ muscular style gave the music an irresistible energy.

He surpassed even this in his performance of Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaconna, which was punctuated by great clouds of rosin and a steady disintegration of the hairs on Jennings’ bow. The solo was sort of an encore to Jennings’ superlative performance of Terrain here in March, and it made one wonder whether there is another violinist in the world who gets so much aggression out of Ferneyhough’s music. There should be: it’s an approach that works.

Aaron Cassidy’s 90-second oboe solo memento/memorial was written in memory of the brilliant conductor and pianist James Avery, who died last year, Cassidy’s piece was in effect a string of trills (on harmonics and microtones) – light, fluttering and gently aerated into rising layers. It was a modest tribute, but briefly the most moving piece of the evening.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson