Last fall, when the world was told to expect a long, dark winter after an already brutal year, I decided to seek out some invigorating new orchestral music. It had been months since I had been caught off guard by the symphonic forces in live. And if times were to be dark, I wanted at least some music that beckons that sense of scale.
Thanks to UK label NMC Recordings, I quickly found what I was looking for in Irish composer Ed Bennett’s “Freefalling”, the opening track from his October release “Psychedelia”.
Lasting ten minutes, it testifies to the truth in the title: a frantic ride that mixes nauseating glissandos with exciting exclamations worthy of an action film montage. This same mix of experimentalism and show business can be heard elsewhere on the album, such as the multi-movement “Song of the Books”. I made a note to check in more frequently with NMC.
Over the next semester, the label continued to release a series of winning recordings, including, this month, “Nature,” the first comprehensive collection of orchestral pieces by English composer Tansy Davies. Like Bennett, Davies is not afraid of obvious debts to the movies; some of the high-flying motifs in the first movement of his “What have we seen?” could recall the scores of “Star Wars” by John Williams. But the rest of his four-piece suite has its own robust lyrical identity. And the scintillating and melodically fragmented Davies piano concerto that gives the album its title is another hit.
When I heard “Nature” alongside “This Departing Landscape,” a lush February release by Scottish composer Martin Suckling, it was clear that NMC had entered the pandemic with a production schedule already in place. While the label has long balanced nurturing young (sometimes very young) talent with some sort of house label for the established British avant-garde, this recent wave of recordings has been noticeably light on veteran names. (Bennett and Davies are in their 40s; Suckling will be 40 later this year.)
A patient and spectral sense of unease is alive in Suckling’s second track, “Release,” which sounds like it incorporates some lessons from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.
The cover notes for “This Departing Landscape” include an encouragement from one of the elders of the British scene, Julian Anderson. Anderson observes that Suckling studied with the American composer Martin Bresnick, as well as with George Benjamin, who is British, but that his production does not resemble the work of any of his teachers.
When praising Suckling’s “bafflingly diverse” Piano Concerto, Anderson asks, “How can the hyperactive polyrhythms of the opening part belong to the same climate as the vast landscape of the central slow movement?” , or that the complex deployment of extended instrumental techniques in movement four? “
His short answer to his own question is that this music is “rich, generous, exuberant and positive”, and that the “power of contrasts” sounds compelling, even on first listen.
Suckling’s worldliness helps make these contrasts possible. In a recent interview for the Presto Classical website, he pointed out his interest in Morton Feldman (1926-87), whose meditative sensibility also informs contemporary American composers like Tyshawn Sorey. Discussing Feldman’s extremely long works, Suckling said that “there is an extremely touching intimacy despite the scale.” He’s looking for something similar in his Piano Concerto, under all this swirling variation.
There are also various references in the works of the other younger composers on the NMC list. Davies made a name for himself with chamber works featuring funk bouquets, including “Neon”. She also described her “Grind Show” as “a superposition of two scenes: the foreground in a bawdy dance hall, and the background a rainy landscape at night.”
If this eclecticism sounds familiar in contemporary British music, perhaps it is thanks to composer Thomas Adès, 50, who used a four-legged techno rhythm in Asyla’s third movement (1997). His taste goes towards ancient juxtapositions such as the integration of a lullaby in the otherwise hyper-complicated score of his opera “L’ange Exterminant”.
Young artists have taken this as a kind of permission sheet and are running around with it. Another artist with an April release on NMC makes it clear his debt to multiple traditions. In Alex Paxton’s notes for his new album “Music for Bosch People”, he puts it this way: “minimal but a lot more notes like video games but with more songs like jazz but a lot more gay like music. old music but more current like yummy sweet. (It goes on like this for a while.)
It’s much more manic than Suckling’s music; it sounds like something that could be released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. (In this case, Paxton was commissioned to write an essay for Zorn’s ongoing book series “Arcana.”) But Suckling is a supporter of Paxton’s contrast-rich sound world, recently. write on twitter, “This is the happiest sound I have heard in ages!”
No matter how the alchemy is performed, the results currently coming out of the NMC lab are a boon to listeners. As pandemic restrictions disappear (eventually) and US orchestras reflect on contemporary programming, they could follow the lead of some scattered bands like the Lost Dog New Music Ensemble in Queens, and start bringing across the Atlantic to some of the works of the great ensemble of these composers. .