The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening.
Dominic Muldowney’s songs exist in an oblique but entirely authentic relationship with jazz, varying in how overtly it displayed itself, lending them an overall sense of late-night intimacy. In a context such as ‘Adlestrop’ (setting Edward Thomas’ poem), it wound itself around the words such that, beyond mere nostalgia, the music tapped into a wistful melancholy that only felt reinforced by its modestly jaunty tone. Muldowney treats all the texts with utmost importance, insofar as he allows them to speak clearly from the singer’s mouth, avoiding melismatic writing completely; he nonetheless occasionally slows the pace, and a repeat of the opening stanza of ‘Adlestrop’, now laden with lingered syllables, was all that was needed to indicate the song’s unspoken depth of feeling. This approach, using structure as a device both to respond compositionally to the text as well as to reinforce its meaning without impairing immediacy or clarity, is more emphatic in ‘Uffington’, where a soft but ‘hot’ atmosphere surrounds a treatment of the text that progresses through it repeatedly to differing extents—8 lines, then 4, then 2, then 8 again, and so on—shedding new light and nuances on Betjeman’s words. The syllabic approach to word-setting was particularly effective in Muldowney’s new setting of A E Housman’s ‘Smooth between sea and land’; the song is thereby prevented from wallowing in the anxiety and sadness permeating the text, but instead allows the sense of frustration to emerge unforced, steadily, naturally—with much more force as a result. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, on the other hand, was a failure; wallowing would have been fatal, but Muldowney’s desire to avoid an obvious heeding of the poem’s bottomless despair here meant that words and music just felt fundamentally disconnected, a kind of non-humorous ‘one song to the tune of another’. But it was the exception in a collection of songs filled with wit and affective subtlety, teasing out a variety of subtextual narratives with a wink and a nudge (Auden’s ‘Foxtrot’ was hilarious), a demeanour wonderfully embodied by Williams, who much of the time seemed not so much to be singing as imparting confidences.
Howard Skempton shares Muldowney’s belief in the primacy of the text, an attitude not only helpful but probably downright vital when setting no fewer than 355 lines (approximately two-thirds) of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As such, in its close adherence to the poem’s metric and rhyming schemes, Skempton’s approach is perhaps best likened to that of a cross between folk song, liturgical chant and hymnody (the poem uses ‘common metre’—8686—used extremely often in hymns). Of these, his setting most closely resembles the method used in Anglican chant, where aspects such as rhythm and harmony are essentially fixed but shaped, coloured and graded in correspondence with the contours of the narrative, gaining (in a similar way to Muldowney’s songs) a heightened dramatic potential precisely by not seeking obviously to do so. This was reinforced by drones that frequently underpin lengthy episodes, Williams’s role as narrator becoming here akin to that of a cantor. Although not strictly—at least, i don’t think so—Skempton alludes to isorhythm too, with either melody or rhythm becoming periodically locked while the other is treated more flexibly (in the form of, for example, additive rhythms and melodic variation), keeping the delivery grounded while simultaneously allowing it to wander. The small instrumental group—a string quintet plus piano and horn—provides what must properly be called accompaniment, not seeking to depict the dramatic events recounted by the singer but instead offering harmonic support and doublings, as well as extensive sympathetic counterpoint. The melodic attitude shifts from section to section (as a whole, the work comprises seven parts, which proceed without even the barest whisker of a pause), and the ensemble in turn shifts in its representation, usually just one or two playing at a time, retaining a distinct chamber soundworld throughout. The piece passed through its 35-minute duration with surprising alacrity, proof in itself of the extent to which Skempton’s calm, measured music had became such an immersive, involving and ultimately surprisingly vivid experience. He really should write longer works more often.