In my review of Ed Bennett's Dzama Stories I noted of Bennett that he 'powerfully evokes cruel worlds and uncanny valleys'. This new NMC portrait disc confirms Bennett as composer laureate of the surreal and the embellished, featuring as it does a range of solo and chamber works of striking novelty and not a little emotion.
As is the case with many composers of his generation - that is, born in the 1970s or thereabouts - the division in Bennett's life between different forms of music, indeed, between different artistic media and disciplines, is much less robust than it would have been even a generation before.
Whereas composers such as Reich, Adams, and even AdŤs profess to engage with popular and contemporary cultures, theirs is a deeply conservative, extramural, even instrumental engagement. It is qualitatively little separable from Beethoven or Haydn's use of folksong. The objectives of high art constitute the formal law of this engagement.
The situation is more complex in the younger generation. Composers such as Bennett, Edwards, and Clancy are to an extent embedded in popular/contemporary culture. At least, they participate in the jumbled, non-unitary musical discourse of today in such a way as to reconstitute the framework of allegiances expected of composers. It is not that they do not bring the values of the academy to their work, but rather that these values can be seen to be in a process of flux, of permeation, in their music. They are being worked out anew for a world with very different expectations and requirements of and from its artists. This does not necessarily lend these younger individuals a moral superiority over their older counterparts: it is simply a reflection of the processes of cultural discourse settling themselves into reality.
Which brings me to the music. How can we understand the engagement of which I have just spoken to function in Bennett's music? I would suggest that it is present in these fundamental guiding principles: internally-determined syntaxes; contact with the world outside of music which is full of friction; a certain enigma and obsession with the spectrality of childhood, and of life. These principles are in a state of mutual entanglement, in varying densities, in Bennett's music.
The first of these principles means that the music is little concerned with musical conventions, especially in terms of form, cadence, and climax. Thus in Slow Down, written for and performed by an on-form Fidelio Trio sounding here like sonic archaeologists, the flow is determined by a sensual, turned inside-out approach to frequency and timbre. Yes we come to a climax of sorts following a long process of hushed but unyielding frequencial and dynamic intensification, but this process is so oleaginous that it feels almost unlike a climax (though not anti-climactic). The piece echoes Newland, Coates, and of course Feldman, but it is so muted and undemonstrative - and yet purposeful in its quick little gestural animations of that muting - that I would wager for its originality.
for JF, meanwhile, is the dynamic, if not thematic, inversion of Slow Down. The aggressive Ligeti-via-Malipiero-via-Scelsi opening minutesí obsession with C#, shards into a mussed-up Stravinsky march that keeps struggling to the fore, before the music graduates into a registrally splayed scratchiness, with moments of respite. This terminates, finally, much as an angry machine would if it were both combusting and running out of batteries at the same time. Performed here by Contempo Quartet with the requisite hostility and excitement, for JF is akin to James Clarke in its syntactical freedom, but much more gesturally and narratively direct than that comparison would suggest.
The second principle has to do with the mutual process of estrangement that happens when Bennett uses non-musically derived titles (and, thus, programmes) such as Stop-Motion Music and Cartoon Music. Bob Gilmore's great sleeve notes speak of the influence of Svankmajer on the first of these pieces. For me its swelling, slowed-down grotesques (the pairing of electric guitar and trombone, and then strings, in the opening is particularly pungent) actually seem to repurpose the atmosphere of Svankmajerís films in unexpected, uncanny ways that have as much to do with music as they do the visual imaginary. Echoes of Donnacha Dennehy abound here too, particularly of his For Herbert BrŁn in the opening, and his Junk Box Fraud in the sparky, Andriessen-derived rhythmic and gestural polyvalence of the central sections. The outlandish culmination is Bennett at his frenzied best, and his ensemble, Decibel, deserve much praise for the level of dynamic response and technical dexterity they bring to this music.
Written for alto sax, piano, percussion, and performed by members of Decibel, Cartoon Music fools you into thinking it has the bearing of John Cage's Sonata No. 1 for prepared piano, before shifting into much more unpredictable, harried territory. The piece scores a phantasmagorical cartoon, replete with ethereal interludes, that leaves you questioning the true hierarchy of the visual and the aural under normal conditions of cartoon service.
The third principle relates to the second, but concerns more explicitly the hauntings, the ghosts, that define the contemporary notion of temporality and historical progress (i.e. the failure of historical time in postmodern culture that leaves us incapable of setting the proper distance between our childhoods and now); My Broken Machines and Ghosts seem apt to this principle. The first stages a grand, emotion-rich invention where the listener is privy to a very private process of decay and residue: the broken machines of the title refer to the arcades of Barry's Amusements, now standing derelict, which through Decibel's performance of this piece get to shriek, fart, and clang once more. My Broken Machines is pregnant with an unexpected atmosphere of poignant hauntology.
Ghosts and Monster are the only solo works in this release. Each in its way confirms the thematic obsessions of Bennett, whilst bringing them to new places. Monster is performed by bass clarinettist Paul Roe. Roe plays flitting motifs against scrappy and bitty arrays of pre-recordings of himself, with some accompanying use of electronic effects and patters, particularly in the hectic middle, and then the later, cadential, section. Fragments of German speech drop in and out, too. This music is humorous, evocative, cinematic, and fun, if of less impact than the other pieces, which feel a little more complete. However, the Hammer Horror pantomime is appreciated nonetheless. Monster seems also to be the only piece on this release in which the soloist is allowed some significant degree of freedom, a trait that so wildly in attendance on Bennettís previous work with Paul Dunmall.
Ghosts, which closes the disc, seems, like My Broken Machines, to begin with the premise that sound itself is a haunting (cf. David Toop), that it constitutes the chief medium of night terrors and uncanny experiences of place or atmosphere. Ghosts was inspired by late nights working in the spooky environs of the Irish Cultural Institute, and its sonic and occasional vocal meanderings on this theme do magnificent work here on the theme of the ambiguities of audition and phenomenology. Performed by the brilliant Garth Knox on amplified viola d'amore, the piece feels like a séance split between Victorian notions of revenant sensibility and twenty-first century technological ghost-lingerings. The closing minutes are a stunning and quieting achievement: poltergeist-hums, tonal fixity on a shimmering note-grid, and the inventive amplification and plucking of the viola d'amore's sympathetic strings combine as phantoms in these minutes to leave the listener unsettled and pleasingly anxious.
Now to conclude. I've strayed somewhat into the old languages in parts of the review. Similar things might have been said of the older generationís music. But this shows us that we've stumbled on one of the truths of musical life; invention and experiment must take place in the minds of the audience and critics as much as in the sounds of the music. Music cannot speak its own truths; it is up to us to develop concepts and tools with which to refine what is happening in the sound, to parse it and achieve a conceptual transformation worthy of the composerís corresponding transformations. The music on this release is powerful enough to provoke such a speculative response. It demands the establishment of conditions adequate to its reception. Needless to say: Highly recommended!
This release can be purchased here
CD Review: The Fidelio Trio perform Bennett's For Marcel Dzama, alongside works from Dennehy, Gribbin, and Volans
CD Review: Ed Bennett's Dzama Stories (QTZ 2082)
CD Review: Jane Chapman plays Paul Newland, Paul Whitty, and others (NMC D145)