A recurring theme in David Gorton’s music is a concentration on the physicality of sound production and its creative possibilities when focused upon in composition and performance, and his pieces are often developed in close collaboration with the performers for whom they are written. Though not yet 40, Gorton has developed a considerable body of work over the last 15 years or so, and a particularly close relationship with the Kreutzer Quartet and its members as individual artists. This second CD release of his music on Métier incorporates performances from the quartet as a whole and its cellist Neil Heyde as soloist, alongside pianist Zubin Kanga, oboist Christopher Redgate and electronic musician Milton Mermikides.
Orfordness (2012), for piano, was commissioned by Kanga with the specific brief that it would be a ‘virtuoso piece’. It opens the disc with a fairly conventional display of pianistic virtuosity – dense textures in two hands, high up and low down the keyboard, and moving between extremes of volume. After only a minute, though, the piece moves into its second movement and examines a very different approach to virtuoso playing: careful and delicate inside piano work, with reverberating knocks on the soundboard set against sustained notes produced by an EBow, the vibrating strings touched with finger tips and wooden implements. Each touch of the string creates complex harmonics, formants and synthesiser-like overtones, and the careful sculpting of sound and space creates effective musical drama in the wake of the busy first movement.
As the third movement begins, a recorded voice abruptly enters, reporting a suspected UFO sighting, and fragments of this material are interleaved with short bursts across the keyboard and inside the piano. The recorded material includes some whistling feedback tones in the background, lending some sonic continuity between it and the piano despite the stark juxtapositions. This central movement suggests most clearly a process of redaction in which the short piano phrases “black out” parts of the recorded voice – alluding to a theme of censorship which Gorton describes as ‘central to the conceptual framework of the piece’, and which is hinted at in the way the second movement drastically reduces the material of the first.
The piece closes with a densely woven harmonic texture split across most of the keyboard in the fourth movement, followed by the use of two EBows and sustain pedal to create a beautiful, slow-moving texture in the last. Like all the pieces on this disc, Orfordness was created through a process of workshops and collaboration with its performer, a process that Gorton describes as a kind of joint improvisation, which makes their respective roles ambiguous. The piece’s drones evoke lonely, empty spaces and the earth-hum of isolated electric stations, suggesting both conceptually and at surface level the paranoia and loneliness of censorship and conspiracy theory.
Shifting layers open Austerity Measures II (2013), with oboe multiphonics and two string duos playing in parallel, one pizzicato, the other with slow-moving bowing. As the title hints, the work is formed by combining a series of earlier pieces: Passacaglia for violin and cello and Cadence for violin and viola comprise Gorton’s Third String Quartet when played simultaneously; when the string quartet is performed with the new oboe part Austerity Measures II is the result. There is no complete score, only individual parts for each piece, and the result is a constantly shifting overall texture while the instruments in both string duos are closely coupled together. The oboe part is formed mainly of sustained, complex multiphonics notated through tablature – indicating the mechanics of production rather than the sounding result to be achieved – and was developed in collaboration with Christopher Redgate and his specially designed Howarth-Redgate oboe, which expands the instrument’s multiphonic and microtonal capabilities. The nature of the score leaves a large amount of creative decision-making up to the performer, not only in terms of expressive choices, but also in regard to harmony and timbre, due to the nature of multiphonic formation. Redgate takes full advantage in a fierce and driving performance.
Fosdyke Wash (2013), by contrast, explores slow-moving microtonal harmonies. Written for piano and string quartet, the piece begins with microtonal chords in the string parts juxtaposed with dense chromatic chords from the piano, and mutates into minor harmony, with canons in the strings rubbing up against non-equally tempered muted harmonics in the piano part. This is an abstractly evocative work, which stands in compelling contrast to the disc’s other pieces.
2nd Sonata for Cello (2011) is the result of another in-depth collaboration with cellist Neil Heyde and focuses especially on the physicality of performance: actions are written into the score that produce no audible result and cause what the composer describes as a ‘surfeit of physical movement’. Naturally this is not entirely possible to appreciate in a recording, but what we can hear is a nervously energetic score with detailed attention to timbre and sound production, hovering between bursts of jeté notes and sustained tones with rich vibrato, with the (optional) electronics contributing occasional snatches of pre-recorded cello, cutting in and out abruptly, and lightly distorted by reverb. Of all the pieces on this disc, the sonata most shows us that, as Gorton says, ‘even prerecorded and electronic music is gesturally and visually meaningful, it is just that this understanding is situated in mental imaginings rather than being dramatically played out before us’.