As i may have said previously, i have a love-hate relationship with film scores. Being something of a movie addict, i’m obviously encountering them all the time, and at their best, i adore how they don’t merely accompany the on-screen drama but contain their own distinctive parallel narrative, interesting in its own right: a musical argument matching the visual argument, full of richness and imagination. At their worst – and these are by far the majority – they’re nothing more than a reheated miscellany of hackneyed, one-dimensional tropes, mannerisms and clichés that avoid sense in favour of sensation, spectacle and superficial gloss: music at its cheapest. An additional part of the hate in that love-hate relationship derives from the fact that while, once upon a time, not so long ago, concert music formed the basis for what went on in film soundtracks, increasingly that’s been working the other way round, and contemporary composers have been reaching to the ostensibly quick and easy results that those cheap film scores appear to provide as the basis for their own scores. All of which brings us to the latest two Proms premières, Grace-Evangeline Mason‘s The Imagined Forest and Samy Moussa‘s A Globe Itself Infolding.
Though highly different in terms of mood, from the perspective of their aspirations and methods these two works are remarkably similar, and could be imagined as two scenes from the same, non-existent movie. Mason’s The Imagined Forest, premièred by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Domingo Hindoyan, inhabits a delicate interlude, adopting a mixture of neo-impressionistic shimmer and pseudo-über-espressivo melodic twiddles to create music positively dripping with saccharine emollience. Quite apart from having to navigate through that much concentrated sugar, i kept finding myself wondering to what extent it could be in any way satisfying or justifiable to create something so generically (and in every other sense) grounded, so completely stylistically and materially borrowed, so downright old – and to present it as something remotely individual or new.
Anyone familiar with the very particular, equally generic and conservative, world of British Light Music would be right at home in The Imagined Forest. i can well imagine it will prove to be one of the more divisive premières of this year’s festival: a triumph for those who believe, as Mason clearly does, that superficial sweetness and cloying sentimentality are sufficient, and enjoyable, ends in themselves; but for everyone else, including myself: a revolting, nauseating slog.
For the second scene in this imaginary movie, we turn from ingratiating syrup to full-blown blockbuster bombast, courtesy of Samy Moussa’s A Globe Itself Infolding, given its first UK performance by organist James McVinnie with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing. In theory, the piece nominally seeks to tap into twin references from the biblical book of Ezekiel – “And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.” – and William Blake’s Milton – “The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its / Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro’ Eternity / Has passed that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind / His path, into a globe itself infolding, like a sun…”. In practice, Moussa taps directly into the faux-epic brand of blusterbrawn with which Hans Zimmer has infected so many latter-day movie scores – and, now, concert halls.
In terms of substance, it’s even more threadbare than Mason’s music, utilising all the usual formulae in its aspiration to create nothing even remotely approximating a musical argument, but simply atmosphere: archetypal mood music. One of the ways Moussa tries vainly to create interest is through huge contrasts: going through the motions, overlapping and overlaying layers until suitably massive, before abruptly yanking everything back to soft, tiny wind tendrils or little motes on the organ over barely-perceptible drones. It would be more effective if there was actually something of substance at either end of those huge shifts. Yet those moments of quietness are very clearly nothing more than a means to the end of creating vast, monolithic slabs of ersatz weight through sheer enormity, as if trying to make a point by just shouting. In lieu of genuine emotion and elation, we pass through Zimmeresque platitudinous plateaus of empty, elephantine scale, sprinkled with glitter, driven home through dry percussive blows. We’ve all heard each and every note of this before, many many times, in the cinema – at least there we had something (hopefully spectacular) to look at while the dull, relentless tedium of the music bludgeoned away, but by itself, the complete paucity of invention in A Globe Itself Infolding could hardly be more starkly apparent. It has all the nuance, subtlety, imagination and authenticity of a wrestling match.
Two empty vessels of cheap, surface-deep, musically moribund sound masquerading as something bold and individual. They are neither; and for anyone wanting more than just easy, instant gratification, they should be approached with extreme caution: music rarely gets more stunningly pointless and stupid than this.
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The piece is inspired by the work of Clare Celeste Börsch, a Berlin-based artist who uses collage techniques to build imagined worlds filled with foliage and fauna. Bringing together thousands of delicate hand cut paper images, she creates intricate and immersive spaces to transform ordinary rooms into magical forests. The Imagined Forest travels through the musical space by interweaving atmospheric textures and fragmentary melodic lines as a collage of fleeting images, just like the artwork upon which it is inspired. The music follows a voyage through the forest with moments of florid energy marked by tumbling, intervallic passages enacting the liveliness of nature itself, contrasted with large interludes of static stillness embodying expansive clearings. The central musical theme wanders through the piece towards enclosed glades where it pauses, as if it is interspersed with shimmering light from the canopies above and the dreamlike dances from the elements of nature; the orchestra glistens with sparkly interjections. Both music and art are fascinating in that countless people can all be experiencing the same work at once and yet, through the lens of their own influence, encounter a completely different artwork. This piece is therefore not a prescriptive experience but is instead a fictional journey; whether it is blooming with flora, captivated by colour, or an airy garden darkened by storm, it is the forest of your own imagination.
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The composer admitted that writing a short work for organ and orchestra turned out to be a real challenge, even if the question of the balance between the instrument and the orchestral force was not an issue here (unlike a concerto for cello or an accompanied lied, for example). In A Globe itself infolding, the organ is first treated as an independent force, until, after a short cadenza, it gradually finds itself pulled into the orchestra and becomes enmeshed until the end. Though the writing appears to be idiomatic, Samy Moussa admits to having approached the work more like a piano concerto movement. The organ gives all the impulses of the piece, but the composer has added a certain sense of ambiguity to its palette: one wonders at times if the colour of the organ blends with that of the orchestra or if it is instead the orchestra that colours the organ, as the title of the work, a quote from William Blake and Tanakh, takes on its full meaning.