Music of a dark and difficult pathology: Tansy Davies – Spine

Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies. She’s clearly going through something of a vogue at the moment, the high-profile commissions (including the Proms and King’s College, Cambridge) and performances being complemented more recently by CD releases of her music. Last year saw Troubairitz, a disc by the impressive Azalea ensemble that focussed on several of her more well-known works, including neon and Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber and solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings and the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy and clarity seem to be important and significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, and which clearly go down well with audiences and ensembles alike. Spine is a more impressive disc than Troubairitz, which painted a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the composer. As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels more expansive and thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices and objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes and Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark and difficult pathology.

When the difficulty arises it’s usually due to an aesthetically audible discord between intention and execution. In Dark Ground, for instance, the ritualistic aims feel undermined by the generous quantities of sass Tansy projects into the music, leaving it ultimately feeling conflicted and hollow, like someone tinkering aimlessly with a drum machine. Conversely, Loure is anything but hollow; if anything, it’s one of the most deeply introspective works i’ve ever heard (and Darragh Morgan’s performance is truly outstanding), yet emotionally is so internalised that we become mere spectators while the soloist wrestles desperately with themself. There’s a weird kind of fascination to that experience, yet also a frustration at knowing nothing of the whys and wherefores. But there’s much to enjoy on this disc. Falling Angel and spine demonstrate that, for all the accessibility i spoke of before, hers is far from being a music without risk. Focussing her (and the audience’s) attention on the surface of musical materials is almost an invitation to disaster—or, at least, compromise and/or boredom. Both of these pieces confront that risk head-on, and while both fall into repetitive (and over-familiar) ruts that cause one momentarily to glaze over, they’re kept effective by Davies’ deft instrumental writing. The former work is almost a concertino for ensemble, pursuing a kind of insistent obsessiveness that somehow manages to sound taut and slack simultaneously. The title work is very different, manifesting itself like sullen organic matter on a quest for momentum. The piece is built upon a central contrast between soft and hard materials; it opts for atmospherics more than substance, and for the most part makes a distinctive and very interesting impression.

The contemporary fascination with revisiting, reworking, remixing, reconstructing and otherwise re-jigging earlier composers’ music is a strange one that invites questions the pieces usually cannot answer. Knowing in advance that a piece is based on such-and-such’s composition can result in music sounding frustrating and bastardised, rendering attempts to hear it on its own terms impossible due to the assertive allusions being made. Perhaps knowing nothing of the music’s origins might help, but that rather seems to defeat the point of the exercise. “Exercise”, in fact, seems entirely the right word for this; the idea that compositions of this kind offer a meaningful “re-evaluation” of earlier music is in almost all cases a hackneyed red herring. If music of this sort is interesting (and how wonderful on the rare occasions when it is), it’s in spite of the existing material from which it sprang, and while make black white does not, to my mind, convince in this respect (coming across simply as a “Dowland/Davies mash-up”), Loopholes and Lynchpins really does, its alternation between spiky, rambunctious outbursts and more reflective episodes putting a marked distance from the original Scarlatti material. The contrasts are fascinating throughout these miniature movements, passing from aggression to gentleness to joy to a hint of the introspection heard in Loure. Huw Watkins’ performance of these pieces is superb, and for me they were the highlight of the disc.

Two short songs are included, both settings of words by Nick Drake. Sung here by tenor Samuel Boden, they’re quirky but surprisingly engaging; Static seems to blanch at its inherent intimacy, almost like recounting emotion from a secondary source, while This Love is hesitant and pensive, the singer seeming to consider his words while singing, in a kind of halting spontaneity. The disc opens with Iris, an ensemble piece that references shamanism and in the space of a quarter of an hour creates a deeply immersive environment that sounds genuinely mysterious and ‘other worldly’. One wonders quite how Tansy manages to make the disparate elements of this piece jell, but the sense of direction and the instrumental interrelationships are both strong, keeping everything tight and credible. The ritualistic nature of the piece is occasionally thrown off in favour of a few cheap thrills, yet in many ways Iris exemplifies the best of Tansy Davies’ music, held together in an awkward, gritty tension that allows for both emotional depth and unrestrained exuberance.

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