If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title and the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title and content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation and spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year and a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications.
In my original review of 2013-V, his new work for solo violin (-V) and ensemble premièred at HCMF, i referred to “a clarity […], a conciseness and economy of material” that the music exhibits. Put simply, the piece essentially comprises six blocks of material, each displaying tendencies distinctive to itself while betraying fundamental similarities to its companions. The first features wild writing for the violin, squealing downward swoops accompanied by fairly static brass rasps; the second is more refined: the violin’s glissandi are small and form the basis for melodic(ish) lines, imitated by the ensemble. The third, announced by a pointillistic motif and blasts from the brass is largely occupied by an extended violin solo; this continues into the fourth, in which the violin continues to low grindings from the ensemble. The fifth is characterised by loud, detached brass notes (the brass play a significant role within the work) that evolve into deep (g)rumblings, while the sixth, markedly different from the rest, introduces a prominent bass clarinet in counterpoint with the soloist, instigating a series of rolling tutti swells, growing in fortitude, causing the violin to peter out.
These six sections comprise the first half of the work, whereupon, after a heraldic outburst and a brief echo of the faded violin, the second half commences, in which the sections return in a different order—not as strict repetitions, but bearing unmistakable similarities to their earlier incarnation. Some sections proceed as before, while others are reversed and/or separated far apart (the order appears to be 2-4-3-5-6-1). This restructuring causes one to reappraise assumptions made in the first half both about the relationship between the violin and the ensemble as well as perceptions of narrative development. Put another way, what seem to be examples of cause and effect in the earlier stages of the piece—the soloist evolving from gestures to more considered ideas; the brass steadily progressing from surliness to a kind of inscrutable glowering; the extreme opposites of the first half’s start and end—are fundamentally undermined when the sections are reordered. This, in turn, throws into question the nature of the relationship between the violin and the ensemble. In the second half the brass in particular often come across as downright antagonistic with respect to the soloist, whereas before they appeared to be withdrawing from an attitude of alliance to alienation.
To create such contrasting soundworlds through the canny juxtaposition (and subtle reworking) of a small number of basic elements is very impressive, as is witnessing a composer allowing himself such blatant structural clarity, a quality not always evident—indeed, perhaps rarely desired—in much contemporary music. The two halves of 2013-V imply diffidence and defiance respectively, epithets that could equally be applied to James Clarke’s ostensibly indifferent manner of presenting his music. Dispassionate it may be, but the music certainly isn’t.
The world première of 2013-V was given by Ensemble Linea with Irvine Arditti, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz.