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sound 2013, King's College Chapel

Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission

In association with SOUND 2013

As the programme for Saturday evening's performance intimated, this concert was part of "Beyond the Semitone" a symposium on Tuning, Scale Systems and Microtonality in Historical and Contemporary Contexts hosted by the University of Aberdeen and SOUND. Both new works receiving their World Premières on Saturday explored different subjects dealt with in the symposium. The Wedding at Cana (after the Master of the Spanish Kings) by Christopher Fox, co-commissioned by SOUND and the University of Aberdeen employed mean-tone tuning and modes while String Quartet No.5 Haec Dies by Geoff Palmer explored the "colours" released when one splits the semitone. Actually, as a mere listener, such technicalities which were just discernable were not the main centre of interest in the concert. What commanded my attention was the question of the extent to which music is able to depict what the composer suggests that it might represent. With this in mind, it seemed to me that the two works were very different indeed. The last two movements in particular of Geoff Palmer's Fifth Quartet came closer to the sort of thing Vaughan Williams did in his London Symphony where you hear the Westminster Chimes or the song of a lavender seller for example. Geoff Palmer had the sounds of migrating geese, the flickering movement and transparent colours of the aurora borealis and finally the sound of a Himalayan singing bowl all experienced against a background of the seascapes of Findhorn. All these things came through to me in the music… but would they have done so if we had not been told to look for them? I am not sure.

Certain aspects of Christopher Fox's music left me perplexed because I simply did not know any of the pieces of wedding music that were woven into the work. At the last wedding I remember clearly, a boy soprano called Earnest sang Where're You Walk and before the meal a very well built lady rendered (I think that is the word) The Holy City. Yes indeed, the fat lady sang! I have obviously missed out on a lot since then. I was happier to take Fox's music as an abstract composition having been inspired by the painting The Wedding at Cana without being distracted looking for things I could not recognise. Well, let us consider the work from that angle alone. The first thing that impressed me was the power and variety of the rhythmic creativity. The spirit of the dance certainly pervaded the work in many different aspects and I was more than once reminded of Bartok because of a certain earthy intensity and power in the music. I can certainly accept the composer's vision of moving from one room to another where the music was quite different. The way in which the diverse strands of the music were resolved together was impressive. Congratulations to the Edinburgh Quartet for their energy and commitment in putting this music across with such verve and flair in delivering its highly contrasting tonal colours.

As I have said, I found the musical painting and sense of atmosphere in Geoff Palmer's music more instantly accessible. The first two movements Adagio…turn of the tide, Findhorn Bay and Sonata…sands of Culbin although less simply graphic were nevertheless powerfully atmospheric in their appeal. I was particularly taken with the final movement, Cadenze e finale… aurora borealis. Geoff Palmer had indeed captured the essence of the Northern Lights and here the transparency and fluidity of the playing by the members of the Edinburgh Quartet set the seal on a very attractive performance indeed.

Reproduced with permission