A few months ago, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series of lunchtime concerts recorded late last year at the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall in Salford, under the heading “New Tunes on Old Fiddles”. Each of the concerts featured early music played on period instruments, plus the première of a new work written for those instruments. The first, given by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, included the world première of rhêma by the English composer Marc Yeats.
The piece makes a disconcerting first impression, the player describing an assortment of fragments each of which suggests it’s been lifted from somewhere, cut and pasted into this new context. Yeats’ concept is apparently concerned with exploring notions of improvisation in connection with abstract painting (Yeats himself is also a painter), and the ostensibly arbitrary appearance of its content. But if that ‘arbitrariness’ is a conceit Yeats hopes to make manifest in rhêma, it’s done with more subtlety than i was able to grasp, despite repeated listenings. As the piece develops, Esfahani’s grappling with each new microscopic idea only seems to clarify that they have precisely no meaningful connection to each other; yes, some are repeated, some seem to echo one another, but the work’s ‘development’ (this may be the completely wrong word) seems less to be about the conjunction of these fragments than a kind of stretto pile-up, overlapping and crushing on top of each other.
It may be that i’ve failed to get at what Marc Yeats hoped i’d hear, but that doesn’t mean i felt the experience to be a failure. An unravelling litany of supposedly disconnected minutiæ may not seem a terribly appealing prospect, but what rhêma nonetheless retains is the uncanny sense that something conscious, even earnest, is going on here—admittedly, it’s something stubbornly intangible, difficult to articulate or even make sense of, but it’s there, and it entirely stops the piece from becoming a dry exercise in empty randomness. Perhaps this falls short of the composer’s hopes, but heard in more purely gestural terms, rhêma is nonetheless a fascinating if inscrutable piece.