A dark, urban sensibility: Tansy Davies’ Neon

One of the composers featuring in the LSO Futures festival next week, and whose Feather and Groove was part of Sounds New last year, a look at Tansy Davies’ eclectic, vibrant Neon.

Written in 2004 and scored for a chamber ensemble of seven players, Neon combines brash woodwind textures with thorny electric keyboard and wild lashings of percussion. The piece taps into a dark, urban sensibility, combined with a love of pop-funk straight out of the music of Prince, or a brooding version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition.

The piece swaggers in with a menacing sense imparted by its asymmetrical 7/4 metre; there’s confidence in the matter-of-fact, brusque gestures dealt by the woodwind. Passages of calm, sustained chords in the background from strings or woodwind cannot provide any cessation from the aggressive, punchy percussion; the bassline attempts to continue onwards, but it’s the percussion that prevails. A spiky electric bassline intrudes, but is shouted down by wailing saxophones, whose shrill cries in parallel fifths seem Eastern in origin, and whose cries are imitated by a lone violin. Soprano saxophone and bass clarinet begin a whirling, deranged dance – here the music sounds like a modern version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale – before the opening idea returns, now strangely humbled compared to its previous appearance, as though chastened by the saxophones’ wild laments. Violin and cello chords punctuate the continuing thorny keyboard line, and attempts by a hushed, wandering bass clarinet and a plucked pedal-note on the violin to slow the music down meet with no success.

A new voice, marimba, enters the dance and provides some textural contrast as it joins in with steps opposite the bass; the percussion starts to spit and bluster, and the opening idea returns, now with pronounced snare-drum accents. For the first time, there is the hint of some kind of belonging as the electric keyboard tries to establish a tonal centre, first with a repeated note, and then with gestures outlining a dominant seventh. But it does not succeed, and after reverting to its jagged line which cannot escape from the low rasp on the first beat of the bar, eventually subsides, leaving the playground free for the previous saxophone idea to return. A final appearance of the rondo idea sees the woodwind becoming slightly unhinged as they add odd shrieks, and the piece eventually comes to a halt with no real sense of conclusion.

Tansy Davies

Tansy Davies

Episodic in outline, there is no real sense of development throughout the work; the music ends up almost where it started, as though it has lurched around drunkenly without getting anywhere. The crazed rondo-form structure moves between recurring ideas that admit no evolution, rather a claustrophobic feeling of frustrated aggression, a fruitless search for release that cannot be found. For all the piece’s rhythmic inventiveness, the inexorable hold of the 7/4 structure is inescapable, creating a looming sense of something troubling lurking close to the surface. It’s the menace of Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis’ Phil Collins-singing madman who hides his evil behind his well-cut suit and professional business-card. But there’s a sense of hunger, too, the need to escape the constraints of the overriding rhythm and break out into something more stable. Scored for a contemporary ensemble, the music pitches the disparate textures against each other, from the upper range of the saxophones to the brooding regions of double-bass and spiky electric keyboard. There is a coolness about this music, a self-assurance in the way it carries itself that is, however, undermined by its fixated stare. This is music with a wild look in its eyes, as though the bright neon lights have become too much; the junkie club-goer zoned out, trying to get home in the pre-dawn light.

Vigorous, brash and assured; take a trip through Tansy Davies’ dark streets.

Posted by Daniel Harding

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