Those who follow my reviews know that I always try to be fair to new music, if for no other reason than every modern composer marches to the beat of his or her own drummer, but I have to confess that the music of David Gorton (b. 1978) struck me as a cipher at first and as an unlovable enigma after I became more familiar with his aesthetic.
The first thing one hears at the opening of his Cello Sonata is a violent pizzicato, a few isolated, whiny, out-of-tune notes, then more atonal percussive sounds, bowing on the edge of the strings and other similarly bizarre effectives. The out-of-tune sounds are not accidental. Gorton has instructed the cellist to tune the G string a third of a tone flat and the A string a third of a tone sharp. (What would happen in live performance if atmospheric conditions affect the pitch of these or other strings is a matter of conjecture. I doubt if anyone would notice.) Even when the cellist holds notes, and this appears to be a Big Thing for Gorton, long-held notes (we’ll get to that later), the effect seems to be purely ambient and not designed for actual listening enjoyment. The music makes some sense, but not much. It is purposely fragmented because, as annotator Simon Shaw-Miller puts it, Gorton “has a short attention span.” Shaw-Miller sees this as a virtue, meaning “music that changes moment by moment,” but in the end Gorton is merely playing head games with his listeners. For me, mind games are not music.
The string quartet Trajectories is yet another head game. The first movement, which runs almost 12 minutes, consists entirely of long-held notes in abrasive microtonal harmonies. There is one outburst of violent musical effluvium at the beginning of the second movement; otherwise the entire quartet is a series of long-held notes in abrasive pitch clashes. You may find this sort of thing wonderful and stimulating. I find it silly at best. In the alternate live performance, the movements are played in a different order. It doesn’t make much difference.
The first caprice for solo violin is busy and annoying, but mercifully brief (1:24). The second caprice I found to be the one bearable piece on the entire CD, a playful series of lightly played triplets that dance across the strings. Melting Forms , a trio for violin, cello, and piano, had to my ears, the exact same form and procedure as the Cello Sonata only for three instruments instead of one. The tinkling piano interjections add a little variety of sound. In the middle of the piece, however, at about the six-minute mark, there is an interesting, explosive passage that put me in mind of the wonderful music that Leif Segerstam wrote in the late 1960s and 1970s, music that was damned by critics at the time and rarely heard today. The final section of Melting Forms is simply an extension of Trajectories except with a piano in the mix. Apparently, Gorton’s short attention span leads him to forget that he already wrote the same thing earlier.
Despite my dislike of the music, one can only marvel at the dedication and precision of the musicians. Both violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved and cellist Neil Heyde are in fact members of the Kreutzer Quartet, and they are virtuosos of the first rank. The notes make a big fuss of the fact that Gorton’s music is meant to b e visual. Apparently, when performed live, the quartet sits around the audience. Perhaps, in the sonata, the cellist flips his bow in the air the way Lionel Hampton flipped his vibes mallets and drumsticks. I’m not impressed. Music is meant to be heard, not watched. If you want to watch a performance, go see a mime. If you want to hear truly great modern music that engages the emotions as well as the mind, investigate some of those Segerstam originals. You won’t be sorry.
**note: to be fair, we print all reviews, good and bad. These are, after all, subjective opinions! We hope customers look beyond the reviewer’s personal tastes where stated – as in the following review – and assess whether the music is for them. L R Bayley is one of our favourite reviewers and we accept she doesn’t like this – maybe someone else should have reviewed… but it’s interesting she recommends Segerstram (who I never heard of actually), and notes that ‘his music was damned by the critics at the time’ . We expect in the future someone will say the same about Ms Bayley’s critique of Gorrton’s work! – Stephen Sutton, Divine Art