Today’s Advent Calendar work is one of Webernesque miniature proportions. Composed in 1976, Howard Skempton‘s One for the Road for solo accordion is a typically strange piece, full of paradoxes. In a not dissimilar way to a more recent work like Oculus, Skempton’s material is obsessive, cycling around a single idea in such a way that it never seems like it’s exactly repeating (because it’s not), appearing to sound neither resolved nor unresolved, while conveying a tone that feels simultaneously amusing and sombre.
Structured like a series of inhalations and exhalations – governed by the in and out of the accordion’s bellows – each in-breath begins from an A⁷ chord, progressing to indicate a perfect cadence to D major. The out-breaths undermine this, also beginning A⁷ but shifting via C to end on G⁷ – an imperfect cadence and as such a point of complete non-finality that only wants to carry on back where we started. Another in-breath, just as before; another out-breath, though now the harmonies are twisted round in the most mischievous way, beginning in C and continuing to a cadence of D⁷-Gm⁷ – on the one hand an almost perfect cadence, though again lacking finality, being another 7th chord and also exactly the same chord with which the first out-breath ended. Once again the music wants to carry on back where it started.
Add into the mix a plethora of chromatic false relations (F/F♯ and B/B♭) that interfere with and further obscure this already weird circular flexing, and what Skempton has created is a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble of harmonic obliquity, perpetually swaying backwards and forwards. When things are as slurred and tottering as this, perhaps having one for the road isn’t such a good idea after all.
This performance of One for the Road was given by – who else? – the composer on 12 June 2016, as the final encore at a BCMG concert marking the end of Stephen and Jackie Newbould’s time as artistic directors of the ensemble.