The prepenultimate première at this year’s Proms was one i’ve been very much looking forward to: Tansy Davies‘ Wild Card, receiving its first performance this evening. i’m fortunate to have had a number of lengthy conversations with Tansy in the last year or so, and her compositional mind is an attractive combination of frivolous spontaneity and thoughtful deliberation. This engaging dichotomy is also brought to bear in her new work; indeed, as she says beforehand, speaking of the tarot cards that inspired it, “they’re all about systems and games, patterns…”.
It opens with the Devil card, the bass clarinet luxuriating in a kind of rude profundity. Melodies quickly develop, doubled on multiple woodwinds (strings form a backdrop), calling and swooping above the rhythmic patterns laid down by the percussion (the High Priestess and the Magician, perhaps). Texture is apparently just as important as tunes, though, and as the melodies subside, harp and piano introduce a series of rough, blurting gestures, the percussion tickling from behind. The two are then brought together; over an insistent bongo, the woodwinds bleat a fragmented tune, swiftly restoring the melodic ideas from earlier. In just a few minutes, Davies has made it clear hers is going to be a diverse piece, chopping and changing with serious alacrity. But likewise, what also becomes clear is that the programme note—in which she carefully describes her musical interpretation of each of the 22 tarot cards—could be a tad dangerous, potentially lulling the ear into perceiving Wild Card as a purely episodic piece—a kind of test where one listens out for and mentally ticks off each card as it appears. But Wild Card is more—well—wild than that; Davies has constructed a far more complex work than first impressions suggest, the ideas relating to individual cards by no means confined to neat, tidy episodes but recurring, quixotically, when it seems appropriate (or even inappropriate).
Although Tansy’s approach in earlier pieces has also involved the juxtapositions and permutations of different sonic shapes, it’s hugely challenging to give oneself no fewer than 22 distinct kinds of musical material to play with. Frankly, it’s courageous; such a plethora of sources could easily degenerate into a meaningless parade of un-unified elements, a mere display of ideas masquerading as a piece. But, while one trusts that the 22 material types are present and correct, the piece clearly isn’t about that, Wild Card‘s not about structure; ultimately, as Davies points out, it’s “a musical adventure loosely based on the ‘Fool’s Journey'”. Journeys—at least, interesting journeys—aren’t renowned for their coherence, rigorous structure and predetermined outcomes; quite the reverse, and Davies’ inspiration is clearly drawn most to the fun that can be had in (quasi-)random juxtapositions of ideas within a context concerned most with simply moving onward. And this the work does superbly; despite the wild (there’s that word again) shifts from one minute to the next, the sense of momentum is undeniable, inexorable even.
Wild Card is one of—if not the most—elastic, impetuous works premièred at this year’s Proms; it’s fantastical, bewildering, chaotic, utterly assymmetrical—and for all those reasons and many more, i love it. It’s by far the most mature and impressive work of Tansy’s that i’ve heard, sure of itself throughout (almost cockily so), executed with real aplomb. Don’t expect to grasp it all in one go; its intricacies need many listenings to even start to become clearer.
The world première of Wild Card was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlávek.