A word that rarely comes to mind when listening to Proms premières is “brave”. Bravery in music, to me, involves a demonstration of the composer’s singular vision to the extent that many, even all, of the expectations that i may bring to the piece as a listener are ignored, overturned, redefined and / or otherwise thwarted. It perhaps seems that such music would be the polar opposite of a “crowd pleaser”, but of course that depends entirely on the crowd – and their openness and willingness to be presented and engage with something unconventional and unpredictable, something willing to sidestep what they’re used to in order to deliver something new.
All of which leads us to composer George Lewis, and to his large-scale work for orchestra and electronics Minds in Flux, given its world première at the Proms last Thursday. It’s a work that, each time i’ve listened to it (and more than most, it’s a work that must be heard many times even to begin to appreciate what’s going on) has left me stunned on numerous occasions at the courage Lewis shows in regard to both its structure and its material.
Structurally, Minds in Flux is downright rhapsodic, a fascinating display of free-wheeling, capricious, improvisational shifts, non sequiturs and volte-faces tempered through a number of recurring ideas and motifs. It would be pushing it to claim that the latter manage to balance the former, and i don’t believe for a moment that balance is necessarily what Lewis was striving for in this piece. The title conveys two very big, important clues: “Minds”, plural, the notion of multiple strains of thought existing in parallel and vying to be heard; “Flux”, the character and make-up of these strains of thought are themselves subject to change and transformation. Taken together, it’s not surprising that the piece should play as fast and loose as it does with conventions of clarity and continuity.
As a consequence, materially, Minds in Flux is highly convoluted, blurring our understanding of what constitutes a particular ‘idea’ in favour of an ever-evolving chorus of germinal thoughts that form the basis for something like a cross between a dialogue and (similar to some of Rebecca Saunders’ works) an intense internal wrangling – both between the composer and their material and between the members of the orchestra – with the nature and potential of their ideas. In his programme note, Lewis speaks of the “uncontainable pressure on our species to finally realize the best of what it means to be human”, resulting in humanity “experiencing an intense flux of emotions, from joy to dread” – and these twin emotional poles can certainly be heard in this mix of dialogue and wrangling. i also don’t believe for a moment that Lewis aimed to make Minds in Flux an examplar of a resolution to this “pressure” – i’ve never once heard the conclusion of the piece as something that could be described as “resolved” – but rather an abstract demonstration of it in action, its nature and its necessity.
The outcome of all this is music that moves between what, in hindsound, seem increasingly to be opposites. On one side, episodes that sound robust and tangible, where the orchestra or the electronics project force and focus; sounds act as clarion calls and catalysts, their weight and muscle reinforced by deep pounding or sharp pointed accents, propelled by various forms of momentum. On the other side, arguably more prevalent in the piece as a whole, lengthy sequences where Lewis diminishes both force and focus such that everything becomes distant, vague and blurred; things waver, half speak, obscured by mystery and articulated as faint wisps and tremulous tendrils. Here the piece is at its most brave, Lewis avoiding the temptation to swiftly marshal these ostensibly remote passages in a more superficially engaging direction, affording them time and trust to sound in their own way and at their own pace.
As i said before, i don’t believe the upshot of this is music that’s balanced or that seeks to depict or point toward certain desired outcomes. Instead it embodies, manifests, a coming together of disjunct, perhaps irreconcilable sonic positions and allows them, seemingly without deliberate intervention, to play out. Every time i’ve listened to Minds in Flux i’ve heard more and more details emerging from these inner points of view, which only makes its internal wrangling and the intensity of its dialogue all the more complex, dramatic and marvellous.
The world première of Minds in Flux was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov