Joanna Bailie – To Be Beside the Seaside (World Première)

by 5:4

For reasons geographical and pandemical, it’s quite a long while since i’ve had the chance to be by the sea. To a limited extent, i’ve been able to do this vicariously through the opening movement of To Be Beside the Seaside, the first orchestral work by English composer Joanna Bailie. Bailie’s music has often involved the appropriation and reworking of existing sounds (both music and field recordings), and in the three parts of To Be Beside the Seaside her starting points were Debussy, Beethoven and Johann Strauss. i’ll come back to the Debussy in a moment, simply because i like it the most; let’s start inland.

The second movement is titled ‘Slow sliding reveal’, which is a pretty accurate description of Bailie’s use of a portion of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. The source material clearly comes from the start of the third movement (the scherzo) – well, i say ‘clearly’, but in fact the clarity of the Beethoven is something that, as the title states, only slowly becomes apparent. (Indeed, i remember when i first heard the piece i thought it might have been the scherzo from Beethoven’s Seventh). In some respects it could be thought of as a reverse of the action in one of Bailie’s earliest works, Five Famous Adagios, where music by Bach is increasingly weakened and eroded to the point where all that remains are the most exquisitely fragile vestiges. Here, initially Beethoven has been radically filtered, sounding rather like the equivalent of an overexposed image, limited to uppermost registers with only the makings of its rhythmic motifs (just about) cutting through. In the score Bailie marks this movement “Like the ghost of a symphony”, and its progress consists of a gradual materialisation of the ghost, not so much putting flesh on the bones as causing its vaporous aspect to gain a little density and definition. There’s something deliciously tantalising about its blurring of elusion and allusion, to the extent that i’ve sometimes wondered whether the demonstrative final moments of the movement – Beethoven as clear as he’s going to get in this context – are less interesting than what came before, even a touch anticlimactic, but the process by which we arrive there is fascinating and, dare i say it, a lot of fun.

In the third movement, ‘Double flicker waltz’, Bailie turns to a pair of works by Johann Strauss, Wiener Blut and Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald. Clarity is complicated here through a kind of mashing-up of the two waltzes as well as an ongoing process of slowing down, thereby increasingly nullifying the spritely essence of the waltz idiom. It seems entirely appropriate that the score indication reads, “Robotically precise, but romantic!”, as the opening couple of minutes almost sound like an algorithmic approximation of or an AI-rendered attempt to recreate a waltz, resulting in a kind of bare-bones representation. i mentioned before the Five Famous Adagios, and whereas there the material experiences a disintegration of sorts, in ‘Double flicker waltz’ the movement away from its opening certainty (such as it is) is less precarious; it would be hard to read the eventual drawn-out chords at its culmination strictly as a faltering or dying of the music. To my mind it arrives at a strange kind of placid stability – although i can never quite shake the notion that there’s something faintly dementia-like about it.

i haven’t only saved the first movement for last because it’s my favourite: its title, ‘To Be Beside the Seaside’, gives the work as a whole its name, and at 10 minutes in length takes up half of the work’s total duration (that being said, in this performance the movement is taken noticeably slower than instructed in the score, though even at the correct tempo would still dominate overall). Appropriately, Bailie has turned to two sea-related sound sources, primarily the second movement of Debussy’s La mer (‘Jeux de vagues’). By comparison with the other movements of Bailie’s piece, there’s something of a paradox in ‘To Be Beside the Seaside’, since it appears simultaneously to be the most complex in terms of its relationship to the original material and also the most simple in terms of sonic result. Debussy’s material has been processed, filtered and reduced (in the sense of concentrated) to produce a collection of 24 chords. These are presented overlapping each other, each chord a slow surge and dissolve, echoing the instruction in the score, “Like waves breaking on a beach (literally)”. The reason for that parenthetical last word is due to Bailie’s secondary sound source in this movement, a field recording of waves breaking on a Brighton beach. The timing of the waves in that recording is the basis for the placement of chords throughout this movement. The collection of chords returns in ever-reducing numbers (always ending at number 24), thereby ‘compressing’ the material and focusing it over time.

This movement is extremely striking in a number of ways. It very strongly brings to mind both the soundworld and the compositional method of Marko Ciciliani’s Pop Wall Alphabet, both in terms of different sound elements being heard simultaneously (just as Bailie overlaps elements from the Debussy) but more significantly in the way that Ciciliani concludes each section with what he calls ‘freezes’, where the original music is distilled into a sequence of complex noise/pitch-band agglomerations that, in ways that seem impossible to fathom, somehow make it possible to not so much hear as infer the source. i hear ‘To Be Beside the Seaside’ in much the same way as this, like a series of frozen ice cores containing an assortment of vertical pitch strata that, almost as bafflingly, with bokeh-like non-clarity nonetheless manage to evoke the Debussy.

Bailie’s interest in dismantling and reworking extant sounds and music through processes of filtering and slicing is demonstrated to fascinating effect in To Be Beside the Seaside. In addition to Ciciliani’s work, which certainly bears comparison, there’s also a whiff of John Oswald’s plunderphonic approach to music of the past, especially in more recent years where he’s been channelling it toward instrumental rather than cut-and-spliced electronic ends. (Though aesthetically quite different, Oswald’s I’d love to turn makes for an interesting compare and contrast.) In its playfulness i’m also tempted to think of To Be Beside the Seaside as a trio of radical remixes; and also, while this is a much more superficial way of responding to Bailie’s music, the opening movement works really beautifully as a slice of ambient music. Ultimately, every single time i’ve returned to To Be Beside the Seaside i’ve heard it differently, found new things within it, discovered new aspects about what makes it, and the original sounds within it, tick.

This world première performance of To Be Beside the Seaside was given on 2 May 2015 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, as part of that year’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow.

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