Detours is a set (a cycle?) of five works for ensemble written between 1998 and 2000. Each work may, I guess, be performed independently. Anyway, they were first performed on three different occasions. However, we are not told whether they are to be played in any given order, when performed as a cycle. After all, this may not be of any real importance. “Detours concerns itself with personal memories and reflections concerning cars … the language of the five works draws upon musical loves and references from genres outside the classical canon”. These words by the composer might imply some sort of eclectic or “crossover” music-making drawing on what the composer refers to as “musical vernacular”. I must tell you that I had never heard any of McPherson’s music before, so that I read his insert notes before listening to the music; and I came to the conclusion that one should never do so. Indeed, reading about “musical vernacular” and “crossover”, I feared to be confronted with some sort of musical hotchpotch; and, to tell you the truth, the opening bars of Echo’s Tape (1998), the first piece of Detours, made me fear the worst, for they sounded like someone else’s music, as a pastiche of some sort. The music, however, soon embarks in a totally different direction, with more astringent harmonies contradicting the almost neo-classical opening tune. In fact, McPherson’s music, at least in these works, seems to be playing with musical memories through often discrete allusions to the music of the past, albeit a recent past. So, the third piece Only the Driver Deserves to be Saved (1998), a brilliant toccata in all but the name, alludes (or so it seems to me) to Bartok. Memory Crash (1999) is a fairly straightforward slow movement unfolding almost seamlessly, with much restraint, but of great charm and quite atmospheric in mood. Lorelei (2000) is a miniature tone poem of some sort in which the flute clearly has the leading role. It of course relates to the German myth (or pseudo-myth) of the Lorelei, which may in fact be a 19th Century invention. The musical result, though, is quite attractive in its own right. The final work Phoenix (1998), too, may allude to some popular music, maybe (as mentioned by the composer) to Jimmy Webb’s song By the time I got to Phoenix, which I must confess I have never heard, or at least to what that song is about. I do not know; but what I know, is that Phoenix is a beautifully made, often nostalgic piece of music, really a Nocturne of some sort.
Maps and Diagrams of Our Pain (1990) “was inspired by a long-standing fascination [I] have had with psychiatry, in particular the study of obsessive-compulsion disorders”. All right, then; but, again, I do not know how the music relates (or not) to the composer’s words. What we have here, though, is a fairly long and substantial duo for violin and piano, which opens with a long introduction for piano in which the violin joins in almost unnoticed before asserting itself more forcefully in the course of the piece. The dialogue between violin and piano, in turn aloof and impassioned, runs through a wide range of feelings and emotions, before reaching “the elongated coda” that does bring any real sense of reconciliation.
The diptych Born of Funk and The Fear of Failing (2001) “is not in essence a guitar concerto”, although I firmly believe that it is one such concerto, albeit one for guitar and ensemble (somewhat like Malcolm Arnold’s) in which the guitar is more a primus inter pares rather than an outright outsider. It was commissioned by the Dundee International Guitar Festival. The first section Born of Funk is a lively, animated movement moving along with alacrity and energy, whereas the second section The Fear of Failing (almost twice as long) more or less combines a slow movement and an exuberant Rodrigo-meets-Stravinsky finale rounding off this very fine piece in joyful high spirits.
Well, yes, I am delighted to report that I really enjoyed the music that is thankfully free of “crossover”. The music may at times allude to other musical genres, but it is never eclectic, i.e. in the worst meaning of the word. McPherson’s seems, judging from these works, a calm gentle voice prone to nostalgia, which is reflected in his warmly melodic style. Maybe other works of his will belie the opinion I gather from these quite attractive, accessible and superbly crafted pieces. Do not be put off by the composer’s notes that may be misleading, as if he was afraid that fine music such as this might be taken too seriously. Listen to the music first, and you will find much to enjoy here. Well worth investigating.