This disc — compiled from various recordings made over a period of five years — was issued earlier this year, and published reviews at the time were widely and wildly divergent. The always opinionated Jim Svejda in Fanfare observed trenchantly that this was “deeply serious, aggressively cutting-edge music that demands enormous reserves of patience and a highly developed sense of adventure”. Another online reviewer reported tartly that “musically, it’s discordant and unsettling, the kind of music enjoyed by people who don’t just want their music to challenge them but stab them with a fork and stamp on their shin.” Other critics such as Richard Whitehouse in Gramophone , while admitting that “Gorton makes no concessions to his performers, not that those heard here require any ‘easy options’ when it comes to realising such intricate and exacting pieces”, were much more complimentary about the composer’s style.
I have to admit that my initial acquaintance with the recording inclined me more towards what I will dub ‘the Svejda camp’; but I put the disc to one side, intending to return to it after a period to see whether my view remained unchanged or whether I could ascertain what had clearly enthused other reviewers.
I must admit that the cover design of the disc is quite forbidding in its own right, a sign on Orfordness proclaiming “Unexploded ordnance”. That is certainly the impression conveyed by the explosive opening of the title track; Orfordness may lie geographically in Benjamin Britten country, but the music inhabits a totally different landscape. The booklet note by Michael Hooper observes that the metronome marking for the piece, 103.7 beats per minute, corresponds to the boiling point of sea water; and it is this sort of detail which indicates the degree of complexity of thought which underlies the score itself. I could not determine whether Zubin Kanga adheres exactly to the metronome marking; but if he does not the point is surely totally irrelevant, and if he does it makes no musical point. He does however move around and inside the instrument in places, knocking and plucking the strings directly in a manner with which we are familiar from avant garde techniques. The third movement suddenly introduces a tape regarding a UFO incident, the relevance of which is explained by “a brief piano chord on the tape, which suggests that the tape Holt was using was at another time used for music.” Is that really relevant, though? The tempo of the fourth movement, we are told, “measures out terrajoules” – and again one questions the relevance of this to any musical experience. We are told that the subtitle of this movement, Blue Danube, refers to a nuclear weapon “rather than a reference to Johann Strauss” – but I think we could have guessed that. One is almost reminded of Humphrey Searle’s alter ego Bruno Heinz Jaja, who inserted a silent three-four bar into his piece Punkt Kontrapunkt which, it was claimed, “gave to the whole work a quasi-Viennese flavour”. There is a detailed programme underlying Gorton’s music, which is comprehensively explained in the booklet; but I am afraid that I failed to detect any real connection between this explanation and what I was actually hearing.
Similarly I failed to see any real relevance to the title of Austerity Measures II , the more particularly since the booklet note admits that “despite the title, there is little sense of this as a patchwork that ‘makes do’… though all the performers involved are interlinked through other pieces that Gorton has composed.” We must perforce take the latter part of this sentence on trust — although Métier have produced two further CDs including Gorton’s music ( Trajectories and Electrifying Oboe ) — especially as we are told “there is no score” of a piece which seems to be based around multiphonics on a specially designed oboe. Fosdyke Wash , like Orfordness a depiction of an East Anglian landscape, makes extensive use of piano harmonics and non-equally-tempered tunings, and is the most immediately appealing of the works on this disc. Its atmospheric sound still makes use of various techniques such as slow string glissandi which are the province of the ‘modern’ school, but the whole seems almost to be the work of another composer altogether. The sense of bleak solitude is not indeed that far removed from Holst’s Egdon Heath in places, and towards the end was are very close to the mood (and material) of Arvo Pärt’s desolate In memoriam Benjamin Britten. This is music of a dangerous beauty which achieves a rapt stillness. It is the most recent music on the disc, and perhaps shows the composer turning in a new direction.
Danger signals however are again to be found in the sonata for solo cello and electronics, when the booklet tells us that “the cellist can choose where to begin”. This comes dangerously close to the abdication altogether of what is surely the composer’s responsibility for the shape and structure of his work, and indeed flies in the face of the micro-management of tempo that was to be found in Orfordness. Michael Hooper’s note refers to the piece’s “productive disconnection”, but I fear that my reaction was more that the disconnection was more apparent than the productivity.
As may be gathered from the foregoing, this disc is never going to be an ‘easy listen’ although one appreciates the degree of effort and detail that has gone into the music and its performance. I must admit that second acquaintance has done little to make me feel more inclined to look for rewards that are so hard to come by. It has been interesting to observe in the last few years how many younger composition students in universities and colleges are consciously moving back towards melody and tonality as an essential ingredient in the music they want to write. One of them described the music of the erstwhile avant-garde to me as “incurably old-fashioned”. I wonder. Maybe Fosdyke Wash is an sign of things to come.