John Oswald – I’d love to turn (World Première)

by 5:4

Many people will likely have first encountered the work of Canadian composer John Oswald through one of two things: either the wonderfully weird collection of ‘Mystery Tapes’ he began putting out in the early 1980s or, more likely, his 1989 album that gave the name to a new form of musical creation: Plunderphonic. Oswald’s entire career has been dominated by this approach to composition, initially by plundering existing recordings that became the basis for intricate and deeply irreverent electronic collages – the most mind-boggling being his 19-minute Plexure from 1993 – and later by pilfering bits and bobs of material as the basis for mangled and reimagined instrumental works. Since 2004 these have formed part of a series given the, from a linguistic perspective, equally plunderphonic title ‘Rascali Klepitoire’, including I’d love to turn, which was composed in 2014.

Oswald has used three compositions from the 1960s as source material for the piece, all very different from each other: The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Terry Riley’s In C, which in the context of I’d love to turn are deconstructed and distilled so that their respective essences remain, providing rhythmic drive and harmonic clarity (Riley), nebulous transforming textures (Ligeti) and a simple gestural motif (Beatles). What Oswald makes from these essential elements has the heightened, off-kilter eccentricity of a hallucination or a state of delirium. It veers sharply between incongruous ideas: a moment of grandiosity followed by a lengthy bout of undulating harmonics that combine to form a jet whistle; an outbreak of carnival swagger and momentum that morphs – via the Beatles motif, which brings everything to a halt each time it appears, including right at the very start – into intricate tendrils of quasi-canonic tracery. It all feels weirdly unhinged and arbitrary, the product of a fevered imagination, intensified by the work’s short duration (barely 7½ minutes) that only makes it harder to get a decent grip on the piece. It yields more on repeated listenings, but as with most of Oswald’s music, there remains something elusive about it, making I’d love to turn entertaining and disorienting at the same time.

The world première of I’d love to turn took place at the 2014 Tectonics Festival in Glasgow, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

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