Proms 2021: Augusta Read Thomas – Dance Foldings (World Première)

by 5:4

Yesterday evening’s Prom concert included the third world première of the season, Augusta Read Thomas‘ orchestral work Dance Foldings. In her very detailed responses to my pre-première questions, Thomas discussed the science-related inspiration for the piece (which formed part of the commission brief) – specifically the “biological ‘ballet’ of proteins being assembled and folded in our bodies”, transformed here into a non-stop process of abstract dancing.

On the one hand, it’s perhaps easy to get swept away by the sheer relentlessness of the music’s internal momentum and external sense of fun. From the get-go, the orchestra throws itself into a cavalcade of spritely, spiky accents, individual notes being hurled out with such force that they don’t remotely connect but sound as brief, intensely hot sparks flying out in all directions. They’re held in check by hints and traces of beats and a bassline below, which also allude to the quality of dance referenced in the title.

On the other hand, i can’t help wondering whether Dance Foldings turns out to be far too much of a good thing. That brief description of the work’s opening couple of minutes is equally applicable to the eleven minutes that follow: a never-ending conveyor belt of wild sparks and firing accents, peppered with lively wind trills and here and there the intrusion – sometimes prompting a brief change of attitude – from the brass. Put another way, the problem that Dance Foldings exhibits is one that often emerges in much more aesthetically demanding, avant-garde music than the accessible stylings of Thomas’ music: its behaviour sounds locked and unchanging, resulting in a structure that is, at best (despite Thomas’ detailed illustrative map of all the sub-sections), only vaguely defined and which for the most part constitutes just one massive section with occasional, very slight, shifts in emphasis.

The ultimate consequence of this is that its short term details sound completely random – the notes being played could literally be anything – and its long term direction is similarly arbitrary: though it lasts 13 minutes it could just as well last three, or seven or 30. This fundamental handicap feels exacerbated by the couple of occasions when it sounds as if Thomas is going to allow things to expand and open up into something more than just fizzing effervescence, moments of promise that swiftly lead back where we came from.

Stylistically, Dance Foldings is superficially pleasant enough that its shortcomings aren’t likely to raise anyone’s hackles or provoke any kind of significant backlash (indeed, it can feel a bit churlish to critique this kind of mindless fun). But a more variegated delving into the musical implications and possibilities of the fascinating biological processes that inspired the work would surely have led to a far more involving engagement with these ideas and a more arresting listening experience. As it stands, though, the work demonstrates how extremely quickly 13 minutes of brightly-coloured but essentially undifferentiated fizz and sparks can fizzle out and lose all their sparkle.

The world première of Dance Foldings was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ryan Bancroft.


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