A pupil of Harrison Birtwistle, associate head of research at the Royal College of Music, winner of numerous awards and recipient of many prestigious commissions, David Gorton (b. 1978) is a throwback to the not-so-long-vanished days when the avant-garde meant just that: composers who relentlessly pushed the frontiers of musical possibility without the slightest concern as to what such experimentation might mean to the average classical music listener. In short, this is probably not an album to make a hit with your Aunt Gladys.
Consider the marvelously quixotic and aptly named Austerity Measures II, which on the face of it might seem to be a work for string quartet and oboe but isn’t. As Michael Cooper points out in the notes, this work “for Howarth-Redgate oboe and string quartet” began with Christopher Redgate and the oboe he designed, itself a collaboration that was taking shape in the period leading up to the composition. Austerity Measures II can only be played on the specific model of oboe (italics added)” — meaning, of course, that even if other oboists were so inclined, not one of them could play it. (And you thought composers weren’t eminently practical.) While the unenlightened might think the endless barrage of unpleasant squawks could be played on any oboe with a bad reed—Cooper points out that oboe part is “harmonically and rhythmically unrelated to the strings”—such is apparently not the case.
Fosdyke Wash for piano quintet is also dominated by non-conventional sounds, namely “non-equally-tempered tunings, to which the piano contributes through the use of harmonics. The piano also uses an e-bow … to sustain the piano’s sound.” Intended to convey “the flat consistency of the landscape” near the composer’s home town of Spalding in Lincolnshire, the piece mixes slowly moving clusters with “the sounds of agriculture that has [sic] shaped the landscape.”
Tape recorded sounds of the so-called “Rendlesham Forest Incident” appear in Orfordness, whose title refers to a former military base on the Suffolk coast which has long been a favorite of conspiracy theoreticians. The hectic opening movement, “Evacuation of the Civil Population from Shingle Street, Suffolk” —a still unexplained event from the 1940s—leads to “Cobra Mist,” the over-the-horizon radar system that like the movement itself emits a constant hum. “You Can’t Tell the People” makes use of Lt. Colonel Halt’s Rendlesham Forest UFO report—a tape that includes piano music the Colonel apparently recorded at an earlier time—while “Blue Danube” refers to a nuclear weapon that was once used in an Orfordness experiment. “The Island” is a vision of the deserted base “after the end of military operations, and their absence leaves a quiet, empty, lonely landscape.”
The notes are slightly apologetic about the concluding Second Sonata for Cello, as “the visual dimension of a performance is withheld by the medium of the CD. The composition is based on the physical movements of the cellist, which in live performance will contribute to the experience of hearing the music….The composition is formed from a cycle often sections, and the cellist can choose where to begin. This recording is therefore one of many possible configurations. The electronics contribute to the idea, since its algorithms respond to the performance by recalling sounds from an earlier recording of Gordon’s Sonata for Solo Cello….The disjunctions, again, are all important, and the 2nd Sonata interacts with the first at a distance.”
Make no mistake, this is deeply serious, aggressively cutting-edge music that demands enormous reserves of patience and a highly developed sense of adventure. Elliott Carter —bless his heart—used to say that when the human race reached the next stage of intellectual evolution, ordinary people would come to like his music. One can hope….