A title such as Images Sombres, composed for viol, puts John Dowland in mind, but while Duncan’s sensibility might echo Dowland’s, his language lacks any overt hint of borrowing or pastiche. The work falls into five movements, beginning with a dark, raw melody that demonstrates the gamba’s unique sound, timbrally somewhere betwixt cello and double bass, but, due to its fretted fingerboard, sounding expressively distant. If anything, that makes Duncan’s leaden material sound, paradoxically, all the more expressive, as though the melody were forcing its way out against the instrument’s better judgement. The brief second ‘image’ is a grinding affair, mobile but heavyweight, ever so slightly obsessive, while the third opts to strum and pluck. Initially rather obtuse and introverted, a series of harmonics, answered by some searching strummed chords, shed a bit of light on things. The final two movements emphasise melody more and more. While the fourth is ambivalent, its melody on harmonics interspersed with some rather dogged, disgruntled tremolando passages, the fifth and final ‘image’ is unequivocal, a lengthy song alternating between the highest and lowest registers of the instrument.
On a first listen, Images Sombres—perhaps due to the number of movements, their brevity and their diversity—came across less as a composition than an exercise. But repeated listenings prove it’s more than that; Adam Duncan has created a rather eerie piece that projects cold aloofness but, just occasionally, betrays signs of repressed feelings beneath.