Proms 2017: Thomas Larcher – Nocturne – Insomnia (UK Première) & Michael Gordon – Big Space (World Première)

Listening to two recent Proms premières back-to-back, Thomas Larcher‘s Nocturne – Insomnia and Michael Gordon‘s Big Space, turned out to be thought-provoking in ways that i’m sure are entirely unrelated to the composers’ intentions. The reason is that both pieces seem to be poles-apart approaches to creating the musical equivalent of the same thing – an extended road to nowhere – provoking the same response: a hefty shrug. i was going to say these pieces left me floundering, but in truth there’s little in either of them that’s tough to deal with, except insofar as neither provides much beyond or beneath what’s happening on their respective surfaces.

In the case of Larcher’s Nocturne – Insomnia, receiving its first UK performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati (the world première was nine years ago in Amsterdam), the title arguably tells you everything you need to know. The music begins and ends in a place of relative stillness, though bearing in mind the title, not tranquillity. There’s a distinct sense of implied motivation: low, sluggish dyads instigate an extensive sequence of ascents, each one rising higher than the last. There’s also a restlessness to it all, manifesting in the work’s most striking episode (around four minutes in) where delicate wind lines, a plinky-plonk piano and high harmonics play out as if at a considerable distance from us; the way Larcher allows this vague stuff to persist for so long is brave but effective. This too is uncomfortable: those high harmonics etch an annoying, tinnitus-like scar into the space that persists even longer, audible for much of the rest of the piece. A lengthy central episode ensues, built from assertive growlings, scrapings and puffings into a pretty wild series of full-tilt eruptions, occasionally halted by weird sliding sounds (plus of course the tinnitus). There is an inevitability to this development, but it’s all superficial, bursts of mere rapidity. The quiet end – by which point the apparent ringing in one’s ears is downright maddening – sets the seal on a work where Larcher has seemingly aimed simply to say how exasperatingly rubbish it is when you can’t get to sleep. Can’t argue with that, but whether it needs fourteen minutes of music to make that point is another matter. Meh.

Similar in many respects was Michael Gordon’s Big Space, given its world première by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and Bang on a Can, conducted by Rumon Gamba. The track record of new music seeking to utilise the space of the Royal Albert Hall is not especially good: Eric Whitacre’s god-forsaken Deep Field and Benedict Mason’s Meld both proved the extent to which spacialisation can be employed to create an enormously ineffectual damp squib. Gordon’s ambitions were more modest, placing 24 musicians around the hall with another group on stage, in order simply to widen the perspective and establish, literally, a ‘big space’. Gordon populates this space with what appear to be two discrete layers of music. The first is a kind of anonymous driving material, all empty swagger and posture, that alternates between poundings and sustained chords. It makes for an arresting start but, as usual in material of this ilk, becomes humdrum extremely quickly. Beneath this is a fascinating drifting music where brass notes slide around to the accompaniment of tremolando bells. Over time one gets the impression this latter music is essentially omnipresent, heard whenever the more dominant layer shuts up. Of itself, this sets up an interesting relationship that perhaps says something about ephemerality and permanence, though the way Gordon places so much emphasis on – and clearly relishes – the blank, boring machinations of the driving music creates a work that ultimately comes to feel almost entirely superficial. Though much more irritating than the Larcher, it’s just as harmless and pointless.

Nocturne – Insomnia (UK Première)

FLAC [57Mb]

Programme note
Nocturne – Insomnia is the first piece in a projected series of independent ensemble pieces. Various manifestations of tonality have appeared like a thread throughout my last pieces. Musically, I have been strongly molded by the classical and romantic traditions. This became clearer as I began to delve more deeply into composition. Thus I deal with my background not in order to find my way back to it, but in order to use it as a point of departure for my own music.

In Nocturne – Insomnia the point is not just to write ‘tonal = beautiful = slow’, but to go beyond this obvious principle which is commonly associated with the newer tonal music and to draw “tonal threads” through more dramatic, intensely agitated parts as well.

In the first part, an arc is drawn out of the deepest depths to the highest possible tones; upon returning to the lower register, ever more noises and rhythmic areas come together, which then initiate the second part: a completely restless entity that repeatedly tries to calm itself down but which never succeeds.

The ensemble is almost always dealt with as a collective: the ensemble itself as a soloist, as ONE body, which goes through the various stations of a night. At the end of the piece, the state of insomnia has not been dispelled, nor has it been assuaged. Not even the small ‘sleep phase’ right at the end can convince us otherwise.

—Thomas Larcher

Michael Gordon – Big Space (World Première)

FLAC [79Mb]

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