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Richard Emsley photo: Gillian Vaux
Richard Emsley photo: Gillian Vaux

31 December 2020 Comments Off on Focus : Richard Emsley’s Orchestral Music Views: 334 CE News

Focus : Richard Emsley’s Orchestral Music

Richard Emsley’s compositional practice can be helpfully seen as a series of four periods. The first (1973-1995) comprising often complex and noisy ensemble music for the likes of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Fires of London, the 2nd (1996-2001) of often pared-down and quiet solo piano music and a 3rd (2002-2009) of even more pared-down chamber music, principally his cycle Still/s. Given the obvious trajectory, it has perhaps come as a surprise even to the composer himself that the 4th period (from 2010 onwards) focusses on works for large orchestra.

He writes of this latest chapter as having been initiated by “siren voices drawing me back again to complexity and intention (after the simplicity and ‘discovery’ of the solo piano music and chamber music). Voices I should have ignored, but a deep-rooted creative urge is difficult to ignore”. However, the resulting three orchestral pieces represent, if anything, a further, deeper exploration achieved through formal clarity.

Ilan Volkov at Tectonics Festival. Photo:BBC/Alex Woodward

What you might first be given to experience on listening to Strange Attractor (commissioned by the BBC and premiered by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the 2016 Tectonics Festival) is a sense of observing a minute detail extremely closely. The structure of an insect wing, or the shape and arrangement of a flower head.  Then again it’s like listening to something loud but far away – was that a far off train horn I heard?  The point is that what you hear is as much to do with your own imagination and involuntary mental processes as anything the composer might be thinking of. Central to Emsley’s music is a direct dealing with the matter, rather than the subject of experience. The sensation of witnessing.  Whilst naming Strange Attractor after a specific geometric representation he is keen that the listener makes their own associations. Compositionally, it is the fine details which, superbly brought to life under the baton of Volkov at the premiere, give the work its vibrancy.

Narrative is certainly eschewed both here and in …des tactiques de lenteur…, the second of his orchestral works recently published with Composers Edition. Formed of 41 chord variations all based on a single natural harmonic series, Emsley’s compositional focus here is the timbral modulation of composite sounds. He wants the listener simply to luxuriate in the harmony and texture, in the slow-motion play of sounds as they swell and fade, each with its own unique shape and each filling the same timespan a little more than its predecessor. 

The chief challenge for the orchestra here is the tuning of those natural harmonics which lead up to sixth-tones of the upper partials. Emsley has a clear understanding of how this may be achieved, sometimes indicating a specific natural harmonic of say a horn, to be mapped to by other instruments. The dynamic shapes are very specifically drawn too. It is clear, however, that whilst vital, these details don’t hold some magical hidden specificity. Natural variance in each instrument, the phrasing of each musician and the acoustics of the concert hall will form an indispensable part of the result. His choice of focussing on a single harmonic isn’t intended as a specific investigation of a sonic phenomena as in the manner of say James Tenney’s orchestral music. Instead it is simply a means to open up a particular psychological space for the listener. The musical interpretation is integral to the work’s vision as much as the phenomenology on which it is based. What is important here is the intention, the feeling, the sensitivity of both performers and audience.

Emsley’s orchestral thinking takes a rather different form in the four 30-minute parts of his electro-acoustic work Music for Pretend Orchestra available to listen to on his Soundcloud page. It started life as a series of sketches for different layers of orchestral sound to be superimposed on each other. As it turns out whilst he decided that they wouldn’t quite work as intended he was nevertheless intrigued by the sonorities uncovered and wraught them digitally using his own software built in the Archimedes-emulated RISC OS (Operating System).

Richard Emsley
Richard Emsley

Of the forthcoming third orchestral work, provisionally titled The Uncertain Life of the Brain, Emsley tells us “it is one of those pieces which arrives suddenly in a composer’s imagination already worked out. Based on a more orderly succession of harmonies which are subjected to a gradual process of ‘stretching’ – in time, by slowing down; in pitch, by stretching the vertical intervals between notes; and in dynamics, by receding into evermore quieter zones. The piece seems to be a cohabitee with various ghosts, one of which is the Tristan Prelude to Act I’s chromatic harmonies, and another Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony’s microtonal harmonies”.

What all these works ask of the listener is really rather straightforward:  Just stop, and listen. They aren’t depictions and there’s nothing to ‘get’. They are expressions of experience itself, at the same time both individual and common to us all.

Composers Edition welcomes expressions of interest in these works, scores for which are available in printed and digital editions.

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