One of the things that’s pretty much guaranteed to pull me into a piece of contemporary (or indeed any) music and hold me there is having my expectations raised and then thwarted. In the case of the latest première at this year’s Proms, Parallel Universes by Swedish composer Britta Byström, that happened in two ways. The first was somewhat immaterial, as it was simply due to the fact that i found it essentially impossible to reconcile what i was hearing with Byström’s interesting programme note referencing different levels of multiverse. That doesn’t matter, of course , especially as irreconcilable programme notes seem to have become an integral part of what defines contemporary music these days (personally, i usually don’t tend to read programme notes before listening anyway – but this time Byström’s note accompanied her responses to my pre-première questions). The second thwarting of expectations was more generalised, and more telling, arising from the way the work’s musical narrative encompassed considerable scope while completely avoiding anything even remotely approximating a conventional climax.
The expectation of climactic moments in Parallel Universes arises both from the fact that orchestral works, for the most part, tend to do this anyway, plus the specific way that, on numerous occasions, Byström allows the musical texture to grow or accrete or otherwise progress in a way that implies a specific, imminent point over or through which pent-up tension will be released.
Yet this literally never happens, and in fact what reigns throughout the piece is delicacy: faint string chords that from time to time become subjected to gravitational forces, pulled downwards to form clouds of streaks; a small rising motif that emerges spontaneously on several occasions either as a focal point or just one element in a broader range of activity. It’s perhaps stretching a point to call these sequences ‘tantalising’, since their general demeanour is sufficiently vague that they’re interesting primarily because of what they hint they might lead to, what could possibly emerge from them, rather than being engaging in and of themselves.
More potent, therefore, are the passages when Byström starts to ramp things up, the first of which is barely a minute into the piece, in the form of nascent momentum leading to a curious kind of regular ‘churning’ within the texture. Splashy accents later on indicate the presence of other forces at play, becoming the basis for at least two significant episodes where one senses the possibility of some form of explosion on the horizon. Yet these consistently recede back into textural murmurations that, in this expectation-defying context, sound all the more nebulous and unfathomable. Some might find this frustrating, but as i said at the start, it’s precisely these moments of literal anti-climax that i find so arresting, the ostensible promise of something big making the subsequently tiny seem all the more fascinating and mysterious, both in their own right and within the larger, confounding, musical structure.
The work’s 15-minute duration feels a bit too long to maintain this kind of narrative tension successfully, and its latter half, driven by a mixture of minimalistic treading water and folk-like elements, risks fizzling out not only its own internal energy but one’s listening attention. Overall, though, its elusive premise wins through, and while stylistically the piece sounds over-familiar, dramatically speaking it’s satisfyingly unconventional. Just don’t ask me what any of it has to do with the multiverse.
The world première of Parallel Universes was given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds.