HCMF 2014 revisited: Jan Erik Mikalsen – Too much of a good thing is wonderful (UK Première)

by 5:4

One of the strongest impressions that Norwegian composer Jan Erik Mikalsen‘s Too much of a good thing is wonderful made on me last year was grandiosity, emanating from allusions to Liberace, of whom the piece is something of an affectionate (if somewhat wry) homage. Returning to the piece since, that impression has become more nuanced and amorphous, in its own way undergoing precisely the same kind of absorption into the work’s depths as Liberace’s own material does. Mikalsen sets up a mise-en-scène that sounds wholly aquatic, initially positioned at a vantage point, coolly observing surges like small tumbling waves at the shore. The qualities exhibited here, though, persist throughout, a distant kind of hesitance, pitches defracted through a quarter-tonal prism.

Whereupon it’s as though the music swallows us up, the surges gaining pace and immensity (firmly bolstered by the brass), with a distinct piano floating around in their heart. It becomes a kind of hauntological object, loaded with connotations of faded, distorted memory, a slightly decrepit aspect that makes its music akin to the reanimation of a relic. Its presence acts as a catalyst, escorting the ensemble into a deep air pocket of repose and reflection, where they combine in old chords encrusted with detritus, stretching out to form a kind of chorale for the end of time. The piano becomes lost in a subsequent sequence of rolling, roiling swells, which retain the same hesitancy as at first, despite their apparent solidity. That in itself makes the solidity questionable, undermined further when Mikalsen reintroduces the piano and everything descends into the work’s most nebulous and vague territory, coloured with low rumbles. Currents of clarity continually pass by, but nothing is definite; even the piano has by now become embedded within the ensemble’s glutinous textures, sinking into a muddy conclusion, the barest hint of a possible cadence answered instead with a dismissive, sighing swish.

Really lovely, heady and evocative stuff; to what extent it confronts Liberace’s legacy is debatable, but the interaction between the piano’s allusions and echoes of him within the enveloping atmosphere of the ensemble is nonetheless fittingly immersive, the great man captured also in the music’s omnipresent sense of opulence.

The first UK performance of Too much of a good thing is wonderful was given by BIT20 Ensemble conducted by Baldur Brönnimann.

Programme Note

Too much of a good thing is wonderful was commissioned by Bit20 Ensemble and premièred in September 2014 in Bergen, Norway. The piece pays homage to the American artist Liberace. I’m very fascinated by Liberace, his artistic outcome and the way people think he is kitsch. I’m fascinated by what is good and bad art, and who decided that Liberace is bad art.

The piece is sort of the opposite of Liberace; repetitive and calm (sometimes building up to big explosions). The piano has a leading role, without being a solo player. The pianist plays two pianos, one tuned down a quarter tone. The harp has some of its strings tuned down a quarter tone, and with the percussion they make up a small ensemble within the ensemble. At the end you will hear a piano in the distance playing one of Liberace’s favourite pieces that he used to play.

—Jan Erik Mikalsen

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