Yesterday evening’s Prom featured the second world première of the season, Cloudline by US composer Elizabeth Ogonek (whose answers to my pre-première questions you can read here). The title of her piece is interesting as it contains two opposite implications: ‘cloud’ indicates mutability and a concomitant uncertainty of shape, while ‘line’ suggests something clear and well-defined. The way these opposites are brought together in Cloudline is of fundamental importance to the way it plays out moment by moment, though its longer-term behaviour and demeanour perhaps suggest something extra. i’ll come back to that.
What Ogonek has essentially done is establish a soundworld that’s inherently unstable, continually slipping between certainty and vagueness. As a consequence, there’s something rather rhapsodic about the way ideas keep internally transforming as well as yielding to external ideas that muscle their way in. No sooner have we begun to engage with something tangible than we’re being confronted by a new idea – sometimes several at once – giving the impression of a great deal of stuff moving about in its atmosphere.
That’s interesting enough in itself, but more interesting still is the way Ogonek lends these fleeting individual ideas a veneer of clarity that turns out to be, at least in part, an illusion. In fact, certainty is arguably the one thing Cloudline doesn’t possess at all. One of the most striking ways this illusion manifests is in its sense of propulsion. A few minutes in, as if from nowhere momentum appears to build, but it’s weird, seemingly fast and slow at the same time; the orchestra doesn’t let rip, though, maintaining its generally smooth contour (primarily courtesy of the clarinets). The strings get in a tangle, the brass react, and suddenly we’re apparently moving at speed once more; but again we immediately find ourselves in the opposite, a moment of tender lyricism. By this point it’s clear that what constitutes momentum in Cloudline is difficult to define. It’s not simply a push and pull of energy, tempo made of elastic, it’s more complex than that, to the extent that the whole notion of speed in the piece is more or less rendered moot. And even if we switch from thinking about speed to energy, the same uncertainty is there: again, it’s not a simple flex and release but an environment of charged-up activity that’s possibly energised and enervated simultaneously.
Which brings me to the longer-term aspect i mentioned above. The more time i’ve spent with this piece, the more i hear it – in an undramatic, understated way – as having a faintly tragic aspect. Over-arching all its short-scale caprice and unpredictable shifts and jump cuts is a tendency for the music to respond to its more powerful sequences by retreating and / or descending into a mess of low, dark shivers. Loud clarion calls around the work’s mid-point lead to a nebulous reflecting before everything almost evaporates; a few minutes later a wild burst of power is answered by a collapse into soft tremulous music. Its denouement acts similarly, a resurgence of passion leading to a collapse and slow decline into delicate but distinctly forlorn string chords. In its longer-term attitude, Cloudline seems to be less about volatility (cloud) than a persistent, unavoidable response (line), one that, for all its beauty, seems to ache, even hurt.
Cloudline is a wondrous, multi-faceted and surprisingly moving piece that, even after multiple listenings, only seems to grow in subtlety and complexity both about what’s really going on and what it all means.
The world première of Cloudline was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ryan Bancroft.