A dark, urban sensibility: Tansy Davies’ Neon

April 5, 2013

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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From the archive: Let’s Get Lost: the thrill of the unknown in music

April 1, 2013

I was reminded of the title of Bruce Weber’s documentary on the life of Chet Baker when reading John Terauds’ feature on Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach on his vibrant blog, ‘Musical Toronto’ recently. The Glass-Wilson libretto-less opera was being given its Canadian première in June, and Terauds asks if the work’s success is in part due to the fact that, as an audience, there is nothing that we have to understand in the work: as Wilson himself has apparently said, it’s ‘a work where you can go and get lost.’

20130401-100349.jpgAs Terauds observes, ”I wonder how many people who buy tickets for a new piece of music or theatre, or who buy a novel from a first-time author — any situation where one can’t see beyond the curtain or the cover until the act of engaging with the creator(s) has begun — are able to commit such a leap of faith?”

In an age of high consumerism, where buyers demand value for money, contemporary art and contemporary music in particular can be a risky venture; putting on contemporary works and premières, launching new commissions, and performing new repertoire does seem to ask potential audiences to trust that they will be experiencing something worthwhile, something valuable which will widen their cultural horizons. There’s perhaps a feeling that, if consumers don’t know what they will be getting, then they’ll be unwilling to risk investing in a ticket for a concert when they aren’t familiar with the actual product beforehand. There is a certain sense in this: as purchasers, we don’t want to waste our money on something if we are unsure what it will provide; instead, we turn to those products with which we are already familiar, safe in the knowledge that we know what we’re in for, and that we like it.

But being uncertain about a concert, about a new piece, or about a new composer, can also be terrifically exciting. Instead of hearing the same old warhorse from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that you’ve heard before, and instead of knowing in advance the range of emotional highs and lows that you customarily experience during a piece, your emotional spectrum is now a blank canvas, waiting to receive a new work and be led through a previously unchartered emotional landscape. With familiar works, you know that you’ll cry at that phrase, or start getting excited at that point where the brass come in, or that a particular chord or harmonic passage will make your heart stop; but with a new work, you don’t know where the music will take you.

Sometimes, you listen to pieces with which you are familiar because you want that emotional experience you know that piece provides. For me, it’s a particular phrase in Gabriel Jackson’s gloriously colourful motet O sacrum con vivium,for instance, that occurs four times, growing louder with each repetition until I find it overwhelming; the slow and stately opening to the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with hypnotic piano chords and that yearning violin;

Or there’s the open horn-chord and urgent strings ostinato that kick-starts Walton’s First Symphony, or the ‘Infernal Dance’ in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that thrums with the menace of deep-throbbing strings and timpani, both of which immediately set the pulse racing. I turn to these pieces when I feel ready to experience the emotional odyssey they offer.

But there’s a sense of excitement in the new as well. I can still recall the first time I heard Antheil’s Ballet mecanique, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Reich’s The Desert Music; all concerts that will resonate with me for years.

In return for surrendering your certainty, there’s the potential for undergoing a new emotional experience, the chance to revel in a new sound-world and be taken both aurally and emotionally across a new, unchartered landscape. It may well require, as Terauds puts it, a ‘leap of faith;’ but the rewards can be worth it.

Come to Sounds New, or indeed to any music festival or concert offering the chance to hear new work; surrender your certainty, and be prepared for a new experience. You won’t be disappointed.

(Originally posted on 15 April, 2012)