Irish composer Dave Flynn (b.1977) works across genres, including classical, Irish folk, jazz and rock, and is a guitarist too, again performing in many different styles. His album Irish Minimalism explores his particular take on a composition style largely associated with American composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He maintains that some of the key features of minimalism – repetition, driving rhythms, gradual incremental changes over time and relatively simple harmonic movement – all fit well in an Irish traditional musical context. Two quartets – the ConTempo Quartet and the IMO Quartet – perform four of his works here, and they are joined in two works by Mick O’Brien on uilleann pipes, as well as singer and narrator Breanndán Begley for the final work on the disc, Stories from the Old World. Two String Quartets, The Cranning and The Keening are played by the ConTempo Quartet. The Cranning has an arrestingly jagged opening, and complex dancing cross-rhythms abound. There is a stuttering reel-like section, with slides over the repeating jagged rhythms. The second movement, Slide, creates a drone effect with quiet chords building up and gently sliding from one to another, reminiscent of the pipes to come in other works here. The third movement combines Donegal dance music with Afro-Cuban and Malian rhythms, with infectious repetition, leading straight into the final movement, ‘Cran’, with its repeating figure appearing with a harsh edge on lower instruments, contrasted with a frenzied dancing version from the violins. The rhythmic pulse is gradually slowed by long drawn-out droning chords, which eventually win out over the rhythmic figure, with the instruments finally arriving at a calm unison note to end. The Keening, as the name would suggest, is more anguished, with its mysterious, murmuring opening, glassy string sounds and cello slides, all building through hypnotic keening to distressed, screeching high violins. Following a keening dirge with the first violin lamenting over droning slow-moving chords, the final movement, Cry, again uses very high pitches, with Eastern European inflections in the melodic lines, before dying away to nothing. The Cutting was originally planned as Flynn’s String Quartet No. 4, but with the addition of the uilleann pipes, it has become his Quintet No. 1 (here played by the IMO Quartet, with Mick O’Brien). Alongside the quartets this addition makes perfect sense, building on his use of drones, lilting lines and twisting and turning melodic catches. In the gently throbbing opening movement, the pipes shift from providing a drone to taking on the melodic lead over gently throbbing strings, then in the second, calmer movement, the pipes respond almost impatiently to the strings rising and falling figures at a quicker pace. The final movement begins with the pipes lilting over rocking strings before they launch into a final reel with infectious cross-rhythmic patterns. The final work here, Stories from the Old World, presents the stories in Begley’s soft and warm local Kerry Gaelic dialect (translations provided in the notes), mostly recited over simple and light accompaniment with occasional pizzicato or glassy interjections. The stories once told, the musicians take over with lively jigs and winding figures from the pipes. The tales come from Peig Sayers (1873-1958), described as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers’ of the Gaelic Revival. They are evocative and full of bawdy humour (the second story is entitled ‘It it was with a fart I won her…’), and Begley somehow brings out this humour as well as a sense of poignancy, despite the fact that I don’t understand the language. This is particularly moving as he shifts into song in ‘The Piper and the Woman of the Tavern’, his gently lilting voice accompanied by lightly skittering pizzicato strings in the background. After the final tale, ‘The Old Hags’, the pace picks up for a lively dance, with driving minimalist repetition to finish. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating collection of works, effectively demonstrating the remarkable closeness of two seemingly unrelated musical traditions.
Flynn, D. 2021. Irish Minimalism. Breanndán Begley, Mick O'Brien, ConTempo Quartet, IMO Quartet. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR116.
I reviewed pianist Adam Swayne’s first solo recording back in 2019, and was impressed then by his phenomenal technique but also his thought-provoking choice of repertoire, drawing on contemporary American music speaking to politically traumatic times. He’s back, and this time with even more challenging repertoire, both technically and emotionally. Entitled 9/11:20 Memorials on the twentieth anniversary of September 11th, he delves into how art, and particularly music, can attempt to commemorate such a traumatic event. In Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s insightful liner notes, he explores how memorial artworks have shifted from directly figurative statues to more abstract and contemplative expressions, thereby more open to individual interpretation and responses. Perhaps music is already better disposed to this kind of expression, as it would be hard to depict literally in music the reality of the events of 9/11. In Karen Walwyn’s Reflections on 9/11, she explicitly avoids the attacks themselves, focussing on impressions of the late summer morning before the attacks, followed by movements confronting different emotions following the event. Swayne selects two of the seven movements here. Anguish begins relatively sparsely, but gradually becomes denser in texture, although its richness cannot disguise the sense of trauma. Burial is equally traumatic, but perhaps more inward looking, and it ends with some kind of sense of acceptance. American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was a pioneer of twentieth century piano music, particularly in terms of extended techniques such as using the forearm to play clusters of notes at once, used in The Tides of Manaunaun to colossal and dramatic effect, and in his Aeolian Harp, the practice of strumming or plucking the strings inside the piano. Fabric initially feels more conventional, but its fiendish rhythmic juxtaposition of five, six, eight and nine beats to the bar are like rich layers of fabric sliding against each other. Swayne makes this seem effortless and smooth, and the Aeolian Harp is mysterious and ethereal. So whilst the three pieces included here are not commemorative in theme, their inclusion makes sense in terms of their influence on the American contemporary piano tradition, and on several of the other works here. Kevin Malone’s (b.1958) Sudden Memorials is the most substantial work, at over half an hour across two movements. He has written other works commemorating 9/11, but this was inspired by a visit to the temporary memorial at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, close to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. On a section of wire fence, visitors attached objects of remembrance in a spontaneous way. In this piece, Malone includes all kinds of musical quotations from mass musical culture – there’s a high school basketball song, bits of jazz, boogie, gospel, hints of Debussy and Chopin, hymn tunes and even birdsong. These emerge from amongst crashing, highly virtuosic and resonant material, contrasting the simplicity of the memorial objects with the enormity of the event itself. It’s a visceral work, and Swayne’s performance here is totally captivating. Not an easy listen, it nevertheless grabs, even demands your attention throughout. Following the Malone, Swayne treats us to a remarkably tender and moving rendition of Scott Joplin’s Solace. This is Joplin in an unusually reflective mood, and its melancholic nostalgia fits very well following Malone’s work, full of musical references and remembrances. The collection concludes with David Del Tredici’s (b.1937) Missing Towers, which confronts the tragedy by focussing on the emptiness left by the towers’ collapse. A two-part canon circles, and a ringing pulse, together with falling melodies create a remarkably moving memorial, finishing with the pianist plucking strings in the keyboard, ‘a further expression of vanished glory’ according to Del Tredici. Once again, Swayne dazzles throughout with his technique, but more importantly given the subject matter, the programme is thoughtful and striking, and his performances transparently moving and respectful.
(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, November 2021)