Catherine Lamb – portions transparent/opaque (World Première)

by 5:4

I am interested in the long introduction (unfolding) form, in elemental tonal interaction, in aggregation and augmentation, in liminal perceptual states, shifts in density, the filtered atmosphere, and intense, focused experiences.

This is how US composer Catherine Lamb summarised her music to me in 2017. On that occasion, they served as an introduction to her then new piece Prisma Interius V, being premièred at that year’s Proms, but they apply just as much to portions transparent/opaque, composed in 2014. The work’s title hints at the presence of light, and this is primarily explored in an atmosphere of constantly shifting colour and clarity. In addition to these aspects, Lamb throws in a couple more, titling the work’s two movements ‘expand’ and ‘saturate’ respectively, suggesting something of the way this atmosphere manifests within its broader theoretical space or boundaries.

Using just the strings of the orchestra, ‘expand’ sets up thin, drawn-out lines of microtonal pitch, shaded with varying quantities of noise. Initially, though faint, these lines are concentrated in a small space, like the beam of a flashlight in thick fog. The fact that it’s obviously a tight cluster makes no difference to the integrity of what is practically a single, multifaceted line. Only very slowly does the titular expansion start to take effect, the widening harmonic palette articulated in alternation with brief hiatuses. The effect is rather like a collection of exhalations (the hiatuses thus becoming pauses for breath), each one gently stretching the confines of the music. In the process of doing this, clarity of the combined ‘beam’ that the strings create varies considerably. There are times when everything feels stable, capturing a complex consonance that at times even entertains brief reveries of ecstasy. These are countered by unexpected darkenings of the musical colour, through dissonances and depth, Lamb allowing the lower registers – absent for most of this ‘portion’ of the work – to make their presence quietly felt. It’s in this interplay of tensions that the work’s title can obviously be heard, the harmony veering around a continuum from translucence to gloom. Though i spoke of stability before, as ‘expand’ plays out, i can’t help wondering whether it ultimately renders notions of ‘stable’ and ‘unstable’ moot, even irrelevant. Lamb is not presenting us with a typical narrative, and its drama is less about threat and resolution than a more mild, quasi-arbitrary varying in intensity. Put another way, some chords sound final, others inconclusive, but perhaps both concepts are meaningless within this particular musical environment.

The second, much shorter, ‘portion’ adds brass and timpani to the strings. Though titled ‘saturate’, the work’s established approach of gradation and restraint continues to apply here, and while the quality of the chords now forming are far more rich and convoluted than previously – pitches juddering and beating against each other in what almost sounds like the product of physical friction – there’s no attempt to literally saturate the space. The range of the atmosphere is undoubtedly very much larger and wider, but its density seems to be correspondingly reduced, stretched if you like, meaning that the harmonic richness of the chords is matched by a thinness that forms another interesting interplay between opaqueness and transparency.

There’s an open-ended quality to the piece, and the way portions transparent/opaque ends sounds less like a conclusion than just another of its recurring temporary pauses. This may be due to the fact that Lamb has conceived a possible third ‘portion’ to complete the piece – which would be titled ‘collapse’ and introduce the hitherto unused woodwind – or it may simply be because the music provides a window into an environment that has no strict beginning or end, but just continues to quietly fluctuate in hue and intensity for as long as we care to look at it.

The world première of portions transparent/opaque took place at the 2014 Tectonics festival in Glasgow, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

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John Blackburn

Like your recently featured Naomi Pinnock work “The field is woven”, Lamb’s work here is sonically generous but musically rather meager, isn’t it? An episodic chain of subtly shifting sound and color has its attractions, but so does the wind whistling through a copse of trees. The difference between whistling wind and a work by, say, Stravinsky, is vast, but here the difference is smaller—and it seems valid to ponder the question, why?, and to question not only why composers content themselves with this minimalist sonic aesthetic, but listeners as well.

Appealing sounds to be sure, with evident craft and discerning aesthetic, but all in the service of rather thin gruel, I’m afraid

[…] revised and expanded portions transparent/opaque, given its first performance last Monday, with the incomplete version performed in 2014. The movement titles have changed – from “expand”, “saturate”, […]

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