Third in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a recital given by the outstanding Dutch recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. The concert included two world premières: Impressions by Brit Matthew Bilyard and Jet by Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras.
The preamble claims Impressions conjures up “images of bustling coastal towns”, but to my ear, Matthew Bilyard begins his piece evoking sounds and callings as of some mythical bird, rapidly alternating between repetitive motifs and lengthier bursts of melody. This interplay between noise and song is clearly a fundamental aspect of the work, and Bilyard brings considerable imagination to bear on it. He divides the piece into three, broadly equal, episodes, the first of which maintains a strident, declamatory tone throughout. The surface of the melody bristles with energy, one moment preoccupied with rapid staccato phrases, the next giving way to glissandi that pull the end of each phrase up or down. The second episode initially continues this train of thought, then almost immediately subjects the melodic line to an assortment of trills, flutters and other buzzing treatments. But it’s the final episode that proves most exhilarating, Bosgraaf switching to what sounds like a garklein recorder, pushing the melody into the high stratosphere. Like a tin whistle on speed, Bosgraaf negotiates Bilyard’s increasingly frenetic writing with astonishing skill, seeming almost to skim the surface of the music. Shortly before the end, there’s a lovely, reflective moment when Bilyard echoes a phrase by asking the player literally to whistle, before a series of hiccups ushers in the final flourish.
Panayiotis Kokoras expands the sonic palette in his piece with the addition of electronics, creating a soundworld light years away from Bilyard’s. The interplay between recorder and electronics is seamless to the extent that they frequently become a single entity, a kind of meta-instrument bonded by highly kinetic material in a seaming race against time to spit out as many notes as possible. Dry percussive sounds of every hue start the piece, quickly accumulating to the point where soft-edged collisions seem to strike in every direction. Bosgraaf’s incredibly constant rapid tonguing sometimes stands out in relief, at which point Kokoras causes slivers of other, recognisable material to hurtle past: a harsh organ chord, a snippet of playful piano. This, it seems to me, is the one miscalculation in what is otherwise a brilliant composition, superbly executed; the delicate obfuscation of the rest of the piece is what makes it so utterly irresistable and so magical, and these (admittedly momentary) glimpses of something clearly defined run the risk of breaking that spell. In time, both parties yield to a sequence of rising, noise-based textures redolent of steam, finally evoking the title, before plunging down into an extended episode of soft, at times barely audible, sighs and whispers that ultimately peter out under their own endless energy. This is one of the best integrations of acoustic and electronic sounds that i’ve heard in a long time, and while one can imagine Jet also working well on the flute, the warm, woody timbre of the recorder (often imitated in the electronics) is one of the piece’s nicest characteristics.