Radio 3 has featured a glut of premières recently, from a mixture of established and less well-known names. One such new name (to me, at least) is Gary Carpenter, whose new orchestral piece Fred and Ginger received its first performance on 17 February, broadcast a week later. A little over five minutes in duration, the work draws its inspiration from the characters of the title, Astaire and Rogers—or, more specifically, the ambivalent nature of their relationship in front of (elegant; suave) and away from (argumentative; turbulent) the camera.
It doesn’t start terribly promisingly; the opening gestures suggest the generic, empty kind of material that litters many contemporary scores (particularly those affiliated with Faber). But it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on here than mere posturing: rhythmic convulsions that already hint at something dance-like; sustained tones that may or may not aspire to melody; spasmodic eruptions—initiated by the timpani—that are clearly going to be problematic as things continue. Despite seeming to be present merely to disrupt things, the percussion actually provide the impetus for a greater sense of both stability and direction, laying down the gauntlet, so to speak, by preparing a clear, consistent pulse. Before things really swing, however, the sharp angular shapes cast by the orchestra gradually assume a more lyrical demeanour—first on the strings, later on a trombone—and the work finally attains the epithets conductor Daniel Harding asserted beforehand, “wit and charm and elegance”. All the while, the underscore (most clearly in the clarinets) has been building, and at the last, all merry hell breaks loose in a swirling, climactic cavalcade of spins and twirls that are irresistably thrilling; it becomes clear that the previous four minutes of wildness were simply pent-up anticipation of this moment. The coda—bringing back the opening material—kills the mood a bit, particularly in the rather hollow final wallop that’s designed merely to elicit chuckles all round, but these weaker moments of Fred and Ginger are far overshadowed by its central premise, a rather gripping celebration of fluidity and friction.
The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.
Gary Carpenter tells a story from the filming of Top Hat (1935), the musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their dreamy dance in ‘Cheek to Cheek’ seems a vision of elegant suavity. Behind the camera, however, their relationship was turbulent; especially in this number, when the myriad ostrich feathers on Rogers’ gown became detached with every movement, catching in Astaire’s throat and eyes. ‘It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote’, he complained, ‘I never saw so many feathers in my life.’
Carpenter had already begun work on his commission for the UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers series, when he saw Astaire and Rogers dancing to Irving Berlin’s melodies in Top Hat. He had already planned to have ‘two sets of similarly constructed chords travel loosely in parallel but according to different procedures; one based upon descending semitones, one according to cycles of fifths’. The chords inhabit the unexpectedly shared soundworld of Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Berlin and the early work of expressionists like Schoenberg. The creative ferment of, especially, European art between the wars has continually attracted Carpenter, in pieces as varied as After Braque or Une Semaine de Bonté.
Watching Top Hat, Carpenter marvelled at Astaire’s apparently effortless glide, but also recalled the famous description of this celebrated collaboration: ‘don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards, and in high heels.’
This struck Carpenter as ‘an apt metaphor for the way my musical material was to progress’. Fred & Ginger pays homage to the meld of off-screen turbulence into silver screen elegance. ‘It borrows from the dance phrasing’, Carpenter explains. ‘Often the music suspends in mid-air or is punctuated by silence.’ He continues, ‘harmonic sequences which are quite innocuous in their separate selves clash fiercely when they elide.’