Concerts of contemporary music have a tendency to be obsessed with presenting premières, yet it’s all too common for those performances to be dazzling one-offs that are all too soon lost to oblivion. So there’s some serious kudos due to NMC for saving two such performances, both electroacoustic, both showcasing British-Iranian composer-performer Shiva Feshareki, and both among the more interesting world premières to have been featured at the Proms in recent years.
The first, Feshareki’s Aetherworld, is from the 2021 Proms, bringing together the BBC Singers, the Royal Albert Hall organ and Feshareki’s turntables for a response to Josquin des Prez’s 16th century vocal work Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi. In my original in-depth exploration of the piece, i noted how the music works “on a meditative level, not actively seeking attention the whole time but allowing its ideas to sit and / or drift”. This remains one of the predominant characteristics of Aetherworld with the role of the voices often resembling the effect of Josquin’s music being massively time-stretched in the background, its chord progressions not only elongated but smearing into one another. As such, the piece in part takes on a dronal quality, in which tiny electronic details become embellishments that dance over and glance against the ongoing vocal suspension.
One of the aspects that lifts the piece from being just another meditative drone piece are the occasions when the voices become more demonstrative, unleashing a variety of sounds and whooping cries that project an entirely different kind of energy. More significantly, though, is the way the music develops from around halfway through. Initially it’s just a harmonic shift, after which there’s a sense of increasing activity going on behind, emerging from and receding into shadow. But it soon expands beyond this, the voices, organ and turntables combining to create a mesmeric, slowly-forming climax. The continual flux of emphasis between the intensity of the singers, the persistent weight of the organ and the electronic sounds penetrating through both makes it a genuinely other-worldly experience, and a fitting tribute to Josquin’s strikingly hypnotic music.
The main work on the disc is Still Point by electronic pioneer Daphne Oram which, having been lost, rediscovered and reconstructed, was finally premièred at the 2018 Proms, nearly 70 years after it was originally composed. Feshareki was one of the team involved in the reconstruction, most obviously in the extensive turntable part prominent in the middle movement (performed by Feshareki), which she painstakingly created according to Oram’s instructions, even using period-appropriate machines to cut the records. As a mid-20th century work combining a double orchestra – one “dry”, muted with baffles, the other “wet”, allowed to reverberate – with turntables as a means to manipulate sound in real-time, Still Point is radically innovative.
When writing about the piece following its première i highlighted what i felt to be a problematic aspect, specifically the disjunct between its radical conception and the somewhat less forward-looking approach taken in the orchestral writing. Specifically, i remarked how Oram’s musical language “though often very attractive – indeed, achingly poignant at certain points – is nonetheless rooted in a soundworld that seems to combine aspects of film soundtrack and light music.” Revisiting the work again now, that disjunct still makes its presence felt, though it doesn’t in any way diminish the emotive power and potential of Still Point.
Apropos: i wrote previously about the work’s “hauntological presence”, and this is what the music projects more than anything else. In this regard, the post-Romantic noodling into which the orchestra periodically lapses becomes akin to a protrusion into a modern context of something from history, reinforced by the turntables’ surface noise coating the music with vinyl crackle. This is given added weight by the meditative tone of its lyricality. If the first movement is a little disarming in its mix of old and new elements, this is soon forgotten in the mesmerising accumulative effect of what follows. The short central movement is spectacular, its melodic material sounding as if through a dense smog, laden with reverb, echoes and locked grooves. Feshareki imbues her part with a wonderfully physical tactility (bringing to mind Philippe Petit’s superlative Needles in Pain)
The 24-minute finale extends this at length, creating a synthesis of sorts from its stylistically disjunct elements. The two start to merge completely, the music’s Romanticisms sounding even more as if they’re memories resurfacing from a long-last past, given a lush gloss due to their at times filmic character. Oram pushes her luck a bit in the latter stages of the movement, lingering on the orchestral material to the point that it starts to sound almost trivial in this context, but this is militated against by a subsequent tilt into a more thoughtful, spacious environment, beginning a journey into ever more vague and elusive territory. Still Point concludes, via a climactic melodic sequence, in an atmosphere of introspection – bringing back the beautiful clarinet tune from the first movement – still caked in ancient surface crackle – before dissolving in wind, reverb and shimmers. Flawed it may be in some respects, yet Daphne Oram’s Still Point nonetheless remains a staggeringly ingenious experiment in the integration of acoustic and electronic sound sources, and it’s entirely fitting that its greatly belated first performance should be preserved in this excellent recording.
Released earlier this year by NMC, Turning World is available on CD and download.