The music of Mark Andre is like Beethoven's late quartets as compared to the heroic middle symphonies of his most obvious forebears, Grisey and Lachenmann. Any sense of compromise that comes from externality has already been abrogated in this music, its place filled with internalised, dilated, unfolding thought.
In fact his music – which is utterly compelling – shares as much with the hyper-timbral sensitivities of the English saxophonist John Butcher, or the lower-case sound of Taku Sugimoto, as it does with Grisey or Sciarrino or Saariaho or any other obvious 'art' models. It combines the micro-tonality of Grisey and the so-called musique concrète instrumentale of Lachenmann with a bewildering attention to detail; precise notations for things like the pressure of the bow on the strings and the many inner gradations of a minor third choreograph an aesthetic of complexity that infuses the whole experience of the music-its performance, analysis and audition equally-with an extraordinary charge. This micro-management of the poietic space of the music collides with grander aesthetic notions of looking inside experiences and actions for a deeper truth, resulting in music that is formally and poetically enticing.
In durch, the first of the four pieces on the disc, saxophone, piano and percussion blend together in music made seemingly entirely out of the multifaceted factof muted sound. Each instrument continuously adds slender new colours to the sympathetic discussion; the piano writing for example leans heavily on damped, plucked strings very much in the vein of Sciarrino's Nocturnes. The music is usually calm and gentle, though a threatening undertow always intimidates the surface. High, swirling partials appear occasionally: these are strangely of a piece with the mute tones from below. All three players of Trio Accanto excel here, with the middle-positioned saxophone of Marcus Weiss always appearing rightly as a conduit for the richer sounds of his companions. When he sets off the vibrations of the gongs and the resonances of the interior of the piano transcendence manifests itself. It is hard to imagine a different, or another, performance of this piece. …zu… for string trio (the players come from the excellent ensemble recherche, as they do for the rest of the disc) is equally involving, though the more homogenised parameters necessarily lead to a concentration of timbral, and dialectic (this field is always strong in this music that whittles away artificial distinctions for a genuine head-to-head of meaning between sounds) tension. Scraped synthetic core replaces damp study, without a loss of stride. We are surrounded by the sensation of physical contact here; the bows on the strings feel like hands reaching out and gently smothering our ears with their pale and desperate glissandi.
….in for bass clarinet is sparer than the preceding music. Gestures are pared down to a minimum, with each micro movement appearing charged, and utterly necessary. The music is communicative, fervent and ardent, unusually so for such an intellectualised, formal construction. Each time Shizuyo Oka lets out one of the recurrent, restive high tones (there is an identifiable ceiling to the sound) the surrounding pent-up repression and aggression becomes piercingly qualified. Oka also brings a lovely liquid articulation to some of the low-lying arabesques. Tension is maintained throughout the interpretation.
….als…II for bass clarinet, piano, cello and live electronics concludes the disc. Like the opener durch it is an extended consideration (18 minutes compared to the opener's 16-and-a-half) of concentrated emotion, wrought in terms of dense timbral and rhetorical intensity (even if it is largely quiet). Here the three instrumentalists are placed in a triangle around the audience, with speakers placed likewise around the hall for the fourth musician to spread out the last layer of sound. Like the other works …als… has a biblical origin, in this case a passage from Revelations (Andre isolates the …when… from the quotation that deals with silence in heaven), though the profound silence of the work can of course be enjoyed independent of its inspiration. In many ways …als… is a sort of summation of the foregoing: the thudding and thrilling dullness of the prepared piano (plasticine on the strings creates the damping effect), the fragmented multiphonics of the bass clarinet, and the scraping immediacy of the cello all correspond to details of the earlier works. Here though the electronics add a further level of definition to the sound; the already alienated and estranged hyper-texture of different timbres becomes even more darkly tumescent when transmogrified electronically. This work in one sense feels capricious, yet in another feels purposeful and precise, just as the fiercely unwavering focus of groups of capable improvising musicians always feels also as if it may break down, thrillingly, at any point. Andre's achievement is that he manages to create this sort of tension by the means of notation that is hieratic, and philosophically archaic. The performers are equal partners in this; without their local variances and intuited diminutions the music would appear shallow and machine-like. To their great credit, it actually appears fluid, tense, and dramatic.
Mark Andre's music is as old as time, and it seemingly stands outside of time, of civilisation even, as only the most resolved and commanding third-ear music can. It is a gift, rather than an acquisition. My cat even seemed rapt.