It’s been a disappointing, demoralising experience spending time with the most recent batch of premières at the Proms. Derrick Skye‘s Nova Plexus, premièred by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the end of last month, was easily the most egregious of them, being yet another example of the cinematised concert music one encounters so infuriatingly often these days. In one respect, though, it seemed apposite. There’s so much discussion about the abilities, effects, limits and consequences of AI at the moment, and everything about the bland, generic musical language of Nova Plexus indicated it to be precisely the kind of sonic effluent artificial intelligence will be excreting before long. Nominally inspired by things astronomical, the work’s only meaningful connection to outer space was a vacuum of creativity, its 20 minutes of corporate underscore invoking only the most primitive, bargain basic sense of awe and wonder. Not so much James Webb as Fisher-Price My First Telescope™.
Similarly dire but mercifully shorter was Roxanna Panufnik‘s Floral Tribute, 10 anodyne minutes performed by VOCES8 that tried to caress the listener into liking its particular brand of sugar. Occasional oblique turns in the harmony introduced a certain bitterness that initially seemed a nice effect, but the consequence of this was often a lack of orientation afterwards, eventually meandering back to the safety of cloying sweetness. The musical equivalent of that rose-scented fragrance beloved of so many grandmothers.
The UK premières from Ivan Karabits and Jimmy López Bellido both had their moments, but seemed to squander the promise established in their opening minutes. In the case of Karabits’ Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, ‘A Musical Gift to Kyiv’, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer’s son, there was something rather enthralling about its bold opening, fanfares tripping over each other in a grandiloquence that quickly faded to soft lyricism. The large-scale plateau that followed seemed weirdly early and out of place, turning out to be part of an all-or-nothing demeanour that persisted throughout the work. Karabits’ increasing tendency to sound like John Williams only reinforced the sense of music again akin to film scores, less rhapsodic than simply jump-cutting, even bringing to mind the awful musical finale of Mr Holland’s Opus towards the end.
By contrast, Bellido’s Perú negro, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Klaus Mäkelä, had a lot more going for it. Its rhapsody was real: a whirl of flourishes, by turns chugging and driving pulses, and sinewy, potentially florid ideas, all articulated with a boisterousness redolent of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Its only problem was this same rhapsodic instinct: while its ebullient, brightly coloured ideas were never exactly dull, over time they became like the contents of a never-ending conveyor belt, ultimately sounding arbitrary and forgettable, a feeling reinforced by the work’s ending, which could have come anywhere and felt neither more nor less “right”. Though perhaps it doesn’t really matter for a piece just trying to be musical froth?
So it’s come to this: the best of these latest premières came from that most wildly erratic and qualitatively-challenged composer, Gerald Barry. To be fair to Barry, the premise for his new piece Kafka’s Earplugs, premièred by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds, was mildly interesting: who knew that the great man had a tendency to walk around sporting earplugs in order to dampen down ambient sounds around him? The two things militating against the piece were its behaviour and its length. In the case of its behaviour, ear plugs filter external sound, whereas Barry had opted not so much to muffle as blur his musical ideas, such that they seemed less the product of blocked ears than bleary eyes. Nonetheless, the sense of a regularity beneath the music was interesting, posing the question of to what degree outer sounds were being modulated by an inner pulse. Kafka’s Earplugs lacked the rampant monotony that plagues other works by Barry (Canada, anyone?), but the piece still came across as a bit of a one-trick pony, struggling hard to justify its 13-minute duration. But then, perhaps Barry was relying on the possibility that any such complaint could be simply dismissed as being an essential part of a “Kafkaesque” experience…