The most recent pair of new releases from the always excellent Spanish label Neu Records are particularly interesting, both on their own terms as well as in the marked way they contrast with each other in compositional outlook and intent. Neu has particularly championed the music of Bernat Vivancos; 2011 brought Blanc, a double album of vivid, gently experimental choral works, and this has now been followed with another 2-disc set, featuring Vivancos’ large-scale Requiem. It’s a work that will, on the one hand, appeal to those who like their choral music with the kind of harmonic simplicity and clarity associated with composers like Arvo Pärt and Morten Lauridsen. On the other hand, in his Requiem—a 98-minute work for choir, soloists, solo cello and cello quartet, accordion and percussion—Vivancos has to some extent sought to distance himself from conventional models, rejecting entirely the traditional text in favour of proverbs and poetry, together with Biblical excerpts and theological/philosophical musings. As such, and in the context of a requiem this is rather fascinating, the work becomes an infusion of both emotion and intellect, spirituality and science comingling in an act of expression that goes beyond mere grief into something altogether more complex, and which is all the more moving as a result. Its simpler passages speak with a soft directness that’s rather touching (albeit at times a little stylistically over-familiar), but Vivancos is at his best when the subject matter is less obvious and more thought-provoking. For example, in ‘Lasciatemi morire’ (based on Monteverdi), he draws on the cellos to juxtapose strange, bleak lines around the choir, in an exploration of death itself and subsequent physical decay. ‘Souffle ta bougie’, articulating lines from Denis Diderot concerning blowing out one’s only candle in order to find a truer path in total darkness, places the accordion both beside and inside the choral texture, acting to anticipate and provide a lingering trace of their presence. That being said, the Requiem finds its apogee of expressive power in the familiar Latin hymn ‘O Lux Beata’, turned here into an immense, coruscating outburst that sees the choir seemingly moving in and out of focus, the harmony in turn moving between clarity and dense cluster formations. While it lacks in some respects the experimental ambition heard on earlier album Blanc, Vivancos’ Requiem is nonetheless a convincing, moving and decidedly unusual take on an ancient and very personal act of closure.
Different Beat, a double album of music by the Swiss composer and percussionist Fritz Hauser, seeks a more radical mode of articulation which, from one perspective, could be heard to obviate the idea of emotion or expression. The varying machinations of Second Thought—a piece positioning three players at a single marimba—are both thorough and thoughtful, while at the same time conveying a sense of arbitrariness, only partially alleviated through the emergence of scales and repeated passages later on. That’s not a negative observation; the effect is as curiously engaging as it is inscrutable and discomfiting. As we are speaking, a six-movement work for four percussionists each wielding nothing but temple blocks, goes further, reducing (in a culinary sense) the material to little more than an exploration of the complex rhythmic counterpoint emerging from ever-changing subdivision relationships, within a variety of differently-charged dynamic frameworks. Sometimes bullish, elsewhere as though walking on eggshells, the interplay between the parts is made all the more interesting due to the numerous inevitable slight inaccuracies that creep in as each player navigates through their constantly changing quantizational grids. Hauser’s disinterest in swift or easy dramatic development becomes overtly manifested in Double Exposition, a 27-minute piece that achingly slowly develops its rigid regularity of cymbal strikes, eventually expanding its palette and range of gestures into a place of utter depth, entirely vindicating the time taken to get there. That’s not the goal, though, and following a dense wave of woodblocks Hauser sets about dissolving the music until it becomes remote motes in space. The two works occupying the second disc are described here as ‘concepts’, each concerned with a single idea, both completely riveting. Schraffur (‘hatching’ – as in the drawing of fine lines) spends half an hour scrutinising the sound of metrically regular scrapings on the surface of a gong, in the process teasing out all sorts of pitched amorphous resonances (at times giving the illusion of soft bells) that set up a fascinating, magical dialogue with the noise and monotony of the percussionists’ actions. The repetitious nature of these actions, a bit like repeating a word constantly, renders them increasingly strange, and there are times when they come to resemble a collection of workers frantically sawing, while elsewhere the mind seems to want to meld them together into a homogeneous timbre. That’s not possible here, but it’s the entire point of final work Rundum, where Hauser seeks to remove all trace of attack from the percussion ensemble: no notes begin or end, but all blend seamlessly into each other. The result could almost be electronic, a gorgeous, hypnotic, slowly-shifting textural soundscape where one quickly abandons trying to work out how things are happening and simply relishes what is. In all these works, there’s a general avoidance of an overt sense of narrative, where events are at once pointless yet obsessively determined. One immediately thinks of Beckett in scenarios of that kind, but Hauser’s music possesses none of Beckett’s grimness; his music has the energetic effervescence of champagne bubbles, backed up—and this usually takes time to accumulate—with a remarkable sense of profundity.
Not content simply to put out such unusual and contrasting albums as these, Neu Records are also at the forefront of understanding the idea of accessibility. Their albums are available both in sumptuous physical formats, often including a beautifully-printed book packed with valuable information, as well as a host of high-definition digital formats, including 5.1 surround sound. Furthermore, and i think Neu are unique in this respect, the scores for the works contained on these albums are also available as free PDF downloads from their website, enabling one to engage and understand more deeply what these composers are doing. Although their output is to date relatively small, in these and other respects Neu are unquestionably up there with the best of them.