Vol. 27 Issue 3 Reviews
Sonic Art from Aberdeen, Glasgow, Huddersfield and Newcastle

Compact disc, 2000, MPSCD013; available from MPS Music & Video, Rosegarth, Hetton Road, Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne and Wear, DH5 8JN, UK; electronic mail carey@cnutman.freeserve.co.uk; World Wide Web www.nossiter.co.uk/MPSMUSIC/mpsmusic.html

Reviewed by Steve Benner
Lancaster, UK

CD CoverThis compact disc showcases the works of four composers, all of whom are well known within the British contemporary electroacoustic music scene but whose exposure overseas is perhaps more variable. The rationale for bringing the four together on this disc is nowhere explained, so my assumption is that this release is principally intended as a collection of sonic art displaying a similar aesthetic and style, drawn from within a particular generation of British composers. The fact that all four contributors are also based in the northern regions of the UK may (or may not) be entirely coincidental.

The disc features two works from each composer. These are presented in pairs, giving each contributor approximately one quarter of the disc's 60-min playing time. This format reinforces the impression that the four composers are independent contributors to the release, each being given a chance to have their say before making way for the next. There is some thread of commonality behind the selection of the works, though, for each composer contributes one purely abstract composition, together with another carrying some connotation of place. The disc thus offers an interesting comparison of works that have emerged from similar starting concepts, providing a level of variety within a common theme and managing along the way to convey the distinct individuality of each contributor’s musical voice.

The disc opens with music by Douglas Doherty (b. 1956, Port Harcourt, Nigeria) who studied composition with Christopher Brown, Denis Smalley, and Jonty Harrison. He is now based in northeast England, where he is managing director of an electronics company specializing in the design and manufacture of custom audio equipment for the broadcast, film, and music recording industries, as well as a composer of music for tape, and tape with instrument. Neptune’s Children (on the edge of chaos), dating from 1996, is a substantial work of almost 13 minutes. Its moody and often chaotic soundworld unfolds in a complex and shifting development of mostly synthetic, abstract washes of sound, building into a series of dynamic pulsing textures. Listening to this work reminds me of watching the roiling waters of a great river, with its seemingly slow and ordered flow actually the result of a chaotic and headlong rush. It has a similarly hypnotic nature, too, so that one hardly notices the gradually swelling to a climax, until the material suddenly subsides into its final, relaxed resolution. By contrast, On the Toon in the Toon on the Tyne (1997), which follows, is a more programmatic (or at least representational) work. It is constructed from pieced-together sound snippets—all collected from city center Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in northeast England—and subjected to virtually no additional processing. The composition is essentially a 3-min soundwalk through the lively and rowdy nightlife of a hard-working, hard-playing community. It presents, however, a disconcertingly fly-on-the-wall view, evoking a sense of disconnected alienation such as one may feel when suddenly immersed in a community of which one is not really a part. The listener feels to be present here only in the role of eavesdropper, a party to mere fragments of others’ lives, all gleaned through sonic events eerily isolated from their full context. Which is not to say that the work suffers in any way for this approach, far from it: the work is as absorbing as it is disturbing.

For the next two works, we move north, across the border into Scotland, to hear from Glasgow-based composer, Alistair MacDonald (b. 1962, Doncaster, England). Currently the Director of the Electroacoustic Studios of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Mr. MacDonald (www.alistairmacdonald.co.uk) has studied composition with Nigel Osborne, Peter Nelson, Denis Smalley, Trygg Tryggvason, and Jonty Harrison. A frequent collaborator with other artists from across a range of media, his music often explores contexts beyond the concert hall. The two works presented here, however, lie firmly within the acousmatic idiom. The first, Dreel, was a 1996 commission from the Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST). The work contrasts several disparate sounds from largely recognizable sources—some real-world, others more traditionally musical in nature—in a 10-min acousmatic progression through a variety of sonic images and loose mental associations. Most of the composite sounds are processed to some extent, although generally only just enough to blur their true origins and to suggest others. The result is akin to a kaleidoscopic journey through a succession of mental states or locations, a dream journey in which one is constantly travelling, without ever really seeming to arrive anywhere. The slightly shorter Final Times (1998, BBC Radio Scotland commission) feels similar in aim. Framed by the calls of a street newspaper seller, its five minutes provide a highly enjoyable whirlwind tour around the city of Glasgow, albeit one in which almost nothing is quite what it sounds to be.

The disc's northward journey continues with the next two works, produced in Aberdeen by Pete Stollery. (b. 1960, Halifax, England). Now Lecturer in Music and Director of the Electroacoustic Music Studio at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Mr. Stollery is the third former student of Jonty Harrison (and thus member of BEAST) on this disc and hence, not surprisingly perhaps, is also renowned as a composer of acousmatic music. The first of his pieces here, Shortstuff (1993), is an entirely abstract work, constructed from sound objects of short duration—mostly fragments of longer source sounds. These are used in a series of staccato, pointillistic sonic gestures, punctuated by periods of silence or limited sonic activity. The work progresses mostly within a single foreground musical line, offering little or no depth of counterpoint, or layering of material throughout its entire nine minutes. The result is a sequence of sparse, slowly evolving textures, each arising from a series of separate explorations into the sonic possibilities of each of the chosen source sounds. It offers a rich aural experience indeed. Its companion work, ABZ/A dates from 1998 and joins the other sound portraits by using, as its source material, samples taken from a city soundscape—Aberdeen's in this case (the title referencing the international designation of that city's airport). The source sounds are utilized here, though, not so much to construct a sonic postcard, but rather as a launch pad for a full excursion into the acousmatic potential of the sound objects themselves, creating (to my ears at least) a more abstract evocation than either of the previous soundscape pieces on this disc.

The CD concludes with two works by Mark Alexander Bromwich, Studio Manager of the Electroacoustic and Computer Music Studios, University of Huddersfield, England. Active in electronic music throughout the Yorkshire area since 1978, Mr. Bromwich is probably best known for his work pioneering real-time computer interactive performance systems. He also has a reputation as a player of the didgeridoo and the first of his works on this disc, the narrative piece Ghosts (1995/97), is an 8-min work using notes from a didgeridoo as well as sound samples from home-made spirit catchers to evoke various legends of the Australian Aboriginal “dreamtime.” What those legends might be is never overtly explained within the work. Instead, the suggestion of them is left as a potent, underlying physical element to the music, originally conceived as a dance collaboration, commissioned by Yorkshire and Humberside Arts in 1993. The concert-hall reworking of the composition, featured here, received its first performance at the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) 1998, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The final work on the CD, Lifting Bodies, also began life as a dance collaboration, premiered at the Making Waves festival in Budapest, Hungary, in 1999. It shares something of the previous work’s sense of physical energy, owing in no small part to the method of its production. The product of an MSP environment using granular and cellular synthesis objects manipulated by a live dancer (using a Bodycoder Systems sensor suit), it takes the form of a lengthy and slowly evolving improvisation. The dancer's movements provide real-time control of the MSP and Xpose environments—and hence the entire audio landscape—and can also, at the dancer's instigation, be disconnected from them for a time, enabling the performer to move at will either within, or independently from, the resulting acoustic component. As with most recordings of improvised material, I must confess to having an uneasy feeling that this piece probably works better in performance than it does as an after-the-event work. Nevertheless, I find that it does provide an interesting musical contrast to the other works on the disc, with its entirely computer-generated, synthetic sound world providing a change from what goes before it, without in any way seeming out of place. It does a good job of drawing the disc to a satisfying conclusion.

In summary, then, this disc provides an excellent sampling of electroacoustic and acousmatic music from across northern Britain in the late 1990s. It provides an invaluable service by presenting a range of similar but disparate musical works from composers who are otherwise poorly represented in the contemporary recorded musical canon. It makes for great listening and MPS is to be praised for a very worthwhile release.