September 23, 2019

  • Chamber Music With A Touch of Zen


    Lachlan Skipworth: Chamber Music
    Ashley William Smith, clarinet.
    Akiko Miyazawa and Kate Sullivan, violins. Ben Caddy, viola. Jon Tooby, cello.
    Bella Hristova, violin. Umberto Clerici, cello. Aleksander Madzar, piano.
    Louise Devenish, marimba/psalterphone. Emily Green-Armitage, piano.
    Anna Pokorny, cello. James Guan, piano.
    Navona Records 6241
    Disc One: Total Time:  55:31
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Five works by Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth introduce listeners to his unique style in these fascinating chamber pieces.  Two multi-movement works are set apart by three rather unique combos featuring clarinet (bass clarinet).  Skipworth’s study of the shakuhachi perhaps adds an intriguing aesthetic aspect to this music where individual tones are important with all their specific inflections.

    First is a rather stark Clarinet Quintet whose music could very well be imaged from the cover for this album—a seemingly winter white bare, abstracted landscape.  Strings open with an angular outline creating this sense of stark soundscapes.  Over this the clarinet enters with its rich tonal qualities adding a bit of beauty against the rather harsher amorphous backdrops of the string accompaniment.  The latter add a fascinating sense of dramatic color against the more lyrical solo line.  In this respect, it is a structure that references shakuhachi pieces.  The central work on the album is Intercurrent.  In this work the music revolves around ten notes that are arranged to create a palindrome.  A prerecorded version is played back as the combo of bass clarinet, marimba, and piano play in real time.  It creates a sort of contemporary canon with the electronic phasing ideas lifting this into a blend of minimal experimental music with a mesmerizing effect.  The final single movement work closes off the album.  The Night Sky Fall is a rather interesting blend of clarinet, piano and a psalterphone (a new instrument created by Skipwroth that adds a rather unique sound to the texture).  Here descending musical lines become the musical component that is stretched and explored as it moves through different registers and colors.  It is perhaps another example of this interiorized conception of Japanese Zen music with Skipworth’s own personal style.

    The first of the two multi-movement works is a Piano Trio.  One gets a sense of Skipworth’s reinterpretation of Japanese musical aesthetics and literature that can be heard more in the way the primary line is bent and shaped.  But in the first movement, the work is actually exploring honkyoku, a type of music associated with Japanese Zen monks.  This is created here by removing a sense of steady rhythm and creating a more fluid sensibility.  The opening movement integrates an actual piece from the aforementioned honkyoko repertoire, Daha (“pounding wave”).  This idea is more transformed into a atonal musical language that intricately explores the different gestures within the lines Skipworth creates.  There is a moment though in the central movement which feels like a romantic interlude with a noir-ish jazz overtone in more intense harmonic language.  The final movement has an excellent forward drive and a quality that builds on Shostakovich’s quartets.  It is a very successful piece.  The three-movement Piano Quartet is another intriguing work that feels more Western in its conception with slighter flirtations with Asian aesthetic.  There are sections with motivic repetition and ostinato that interact more between the piano and strings in a more traditional way.  What is apparent though is Skipworth’s excellent dramatic shaping of his material.

    The collection of chamber pieces here are very engaging contemporary works that move beyond their philosophical influences into pieces that have transformed this material in engaging dramatic ways.  The music has a tendency never to let up but balances moments of intense dissonance with often quite beautiful lyrical writing.  As such, this is an important collection of new music worth exploring.  Performances here manage very well in some rather tough music requiring a lot of virtuosic and technical skill.