Vol. 32 Issue 4 Reviews

Simon Emmerson: Spaces and Places

Compact disc, 2007, Sargasso scd28055; Sargasso, P.O. Box 10565, London N1 8SR, UK; telephone (+44) 20-8731-1998-9592; Web www.sargasso.com/.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Treviño
San Diego, California, USA

Worry not, potential listener: This album has much more to offer than its bland title suggests. Here are four large-scale undertakings that fuse acoustic instruments with live electronic processing in crisply rendered stereo recordings, a noteworthy technological accomplishment in itself; however, this sample of Mr. Emmerson’s work should be praised first for its ambition and second for its occasional musicality. The absence of the former offers the latter in two marvelous pieces, but scheme suffocates music in another pair.

Sentences, for soprano and live electronics, and Five Spaces, for electric cello, are handsome musical alcoves. The eponymous sentences are the poetry of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and William Shakespeare, as declaimed plainly by Nicola Walker Smith, who abstains from the operatic stilt with which these settings may otherwise have been poisoned. The first two settings are quaint and rhetorical, with conservative electronics and deference to poetic meter. The second two (less successful) settings mulch their texts à la Luciano Berio for an conceptually interesting but experientially disappointing formal antipode. These settings, especially the fourth movement, answer the clarity and respect of the first two sentences with arbitrary chaos.

Five Spaces is reason enough to buy this disc, right now. Composed with cellist Philip Sheppard, this performance exemplifies the intimate coupling of composed shape and sonic reservoir that collaboration can bring. These miniatures are formally simple to great benefit, and the Technicolor details of the all too seldom heard electric cello have both room to breath and license to steer. It might sound hackneyed—as does the composer’s description of the five “spaces” in the liner notes—that each movement gains its strong profile from a severely limited gestural terrain, but each locale is more than sufficiently beguiling to sustain engagement in this condition.

Fields of Attraction, for string quartet and live electronics, and Arenas, for piano, brass quintet, and live electronics, are written for concert halls but belong primarily in lecture halls. In the liner notes, the composer describes intricate formal plans for Fields of Attraction: the piece consists of thirty-one “movements,” the identity of musical material correlates to the number of players making sound, and these musical identities change gradually over time. These ideas are well and good, but the experience of his formal mosaic lacks internal necessity throughout, as the few interesting musical materials feel perpetually interrupted or overextended. Arenas is built identically and suffers similarly; it feels as centrally planned as a condominium block, and its initial material, an interminable piano trill, is verified and annoying (the same can be said for much of the string quartet materials). Decisions with profiles strong enough to wrest control of the entire unfolding—the rude trumpet solo around 5:00, for example—are suffocated by imposed formal invention, their uniqueness stifled by contrived recurrence and their consequence sacrificed to extramusical permutation. None of these criticisms are to disclaim the composer’s planning strategies a priori; they are, however, to disclaim an experience in which nothing seems to matter, except in iconic return. Ultimately, it is possible that this author has missed a substantial portion of the experience’s attractive features (the players perform solos into a resonating piano, and the audio is disposed in five channels, to name a couple) in this recording and is consequently reticent about these assessments. 

But lastly, let us praise Mr. Emmerson’s ambitious and admirable labors. The works on this disc, besides their auspicious status as tremendous undertakings, contain many arresting moments and, especially to a young composer, are correspondingly tremendous sources of inspiration in the creation of electronic music.