Fanfare

Subtitled “contemporary music for voice,” this is a highly specialized but massively rewarding disc. Christopher Fox’s music is never less than fascinating: His Sea to the West of 2014 uses sine-tones “to create a series of sonic horizons,” as well as using playback, as the piece goes on, of snippets Hilliard has previously sung—musical memories, in fact, and appropriately that is what the poem, by Norman Nicholson, is about. The sine-tone has a beautifully pure yet non-expressive effect on Hilliard’s blanched tone.

A pupil of Hugh Wood, Jonathan Harvey, and Richard Orton, Fox holds the post of professor of music at Brunel University. In among the reminiscences sits the most powerful sonic beauty. Fox’s aural imagination is simply remarkable: haunting does not even begin to cover it. The early work Magnification, which dates from the late 1970s, was originally written for soprano Amanda Crawley. There is an aleatoric element here in that the performer has a lot of choices to make, plus prerecording the humming. The text is from the Magnificat, translated into English. The vocal lines include large intervals, and it is here that the purity of Hilliard’s slurs really comes into its own. Interested readers who wish to explore Fox’s music further could do worse than another Metier disc, Straight Lines in Broken Times (92081).

Irish composer Linda Buckley contributes Nùmarìmur (2009), based on an Icelandic text in the rimur tradition (long poems that were sung/chanted) by Siguröur Breiöfjöro. A description of the imagined Icelandic landscape (it was written before the composer actually went to that country), it layers Hilliard’s voice exquisitely. Nods to medieval sounds and techniques impart a sense of distancing. Again, Hilliard’s plangent, pure sound seems absolutely perfect; more, her control in the hypnotic repetitions of fragments around five minutes in is stunning, as is the use of reverb throughout.

As if the sheer variety of sounds heard so far was not enough, Graínne Mulvey’s Phonology of Sounds (2013) [sic] is an exploration of the possibilities of the human voice. A recorded tape holds sounds the voice is asked to imitate. Mulvey also plays with intelligibility: Sometimes the words can be understood, at others they are elusive, and at still others the voice sings in phonemes. The particularly wintry effect occurring at between seven and eight minutes in—descending scales seem to lament an unknown cause, with a subsequent contrast of different sounds presented in quick succession, followed by what could easily be a siren’s song—gives some idea of the sheer quality of imagination at work here. The second piece by Mulvey is Eternity is Now, based on a poem by Anne Le Marquand Hartigan (from the book To Keep the Light Burning, which contains writings to be read at funerals and the suchlike to help the bereaved cope with grief). Mulvey uses overtone singing lo bookend the piece, recorded here with stunning immediacy. Mulvey studied with Nicola LeFanu at the University of York. To explore more of her music, there are some videos of performances of her music on her web site at grainnemulvey.com/styled-2/styled-4/index.html.

Hailing from Cumbria in England’s frozen North, David Bremner moved to Ireland in 1999; his doctorate was overseen by Graínne Mulvey. He codirects the music/text production company Béal with Elizabeth Hilliard. By some way the longest piece on the disc, his 2013 logic ballad #2: The guarded tourist makes the guide the test (the title taken from William Empson’s poem “Aubade”) is a 20-minute dramatic ballad that only uses three-word phrases from a pool of 25 words. This way, the composer intends each phrase lo be “like a freeze-frame [that] conjures up poetically a particular instant or situation in the story.” The composer also describes the technique as resulting in “a constantly developing thought process.” Dedicated to the present performer, this is a work in which the musical surface itself hypnotizes, so that sudden tonal references, detached from a forward moving sense of directionality, make for a rather disturbing effect. Hilliard’s exemplary vocal control must take a great proportion of the credit in making this an enriching musical experience, whether delivering text al high velocity or negotiating huge intervallic leaps.

The disc is in fact a huge achievement for Elizabeth Hilliard. It is also an enriching experience for the listener. If you want something different, this is where to head.

—Colin Clarke