Sarah Leonard, soprano
Howard Skempton, accordion
1. Passing Fancy (1975) 0:44
2. Drum Cannon 2 (1976) 1:04
3. Bends (1973) 1:04
4. Call (1983) 2:55
5. Fire (1989) 6:56
6. Melody (1979) 1:18
7. Recessional (1983) 2:55
Tree Sequence: (1981-82)
8. From the Palm Trees 1:46
9. Willow 1:42
10. Laburnam 0:43
11. Duet for Piano and Woodblocks (1976) 1:13
12. Mountain Ash 1:07
13. Surface Tension 1 (1975) 6:38
14. Three Pieces for Oboe (1993) 3:37
15. Surface Tension 2 (1975) 7:55
16. Moto Perpetuo (1993) 2:36
17. Lament (1972) 3:16
18. Small Change (1985) 1:52
19. The Gipsy's Wife's Song (1983) 6:33
20. Gemini Dances #6 (1994) 1:36
21. Lullaby (1983) 2:53
22. Bagatelle (1985) 1:07
23. Prelude (1971) 1:19
24. Intermezzo (1978) 2:40
25. Under the Elder (1982-83) 1:24
26. African Melody (1969) 0:12
27. Agreement (1985) 2:00
28. Trace (1980) 0:53
What do you get when Erik Satie meets Anton Webern for a cup of tea in England? These delightful miniatures of Howard Skempton might just be it. With their distinctly English vocabulary, witty turns, and spare yet memorable melodies, Surface Tension offers a survey of Skempton's music in solo through quintet settings from the 1970s through the 90s. Born in Chester, England in 1947, Skempton moved to London to study with Cornelius Cardew in 1967. There, with Cardew, he co-founded the infamous Scratch Orchestra (whose members included Brian Eno as well as Rohan de Saram of the Arditti Quartet).
These composer prepared performances are by HCD Productions, a Frankfurt based ensemble formed as an off-shoot from the Ensemble Modern. HCD are champions of Skempton's music, developing the recital recorded here as an evening length performance. To quote Skempton from his liner notes: "As the composer, I take my share of the credit for the individual pieces in this collection, but it is HCD who are responsible for the form (the composition) of the sequence. This is loosely symmetrical and manages to ensure both continuity and contrast." The superb players of HCD are joined by the renowned British soprano Sarah Leonard (noted for her work with Michael Nyman including Prospero's Books) and the composer himself on accordion. Among HCD's credits is their recent CD of music by Paul Bowles on the Largo label.
This Mode CD follows the release of the critically acclaimed Well, Well Cornelius, a recital of Skempton's piano music performed by his associate John Tilbury on Sony Classics. A very special disc of delightfully accessible small-scaled works by one of Britain's leading composers.
HCD Productions are currently working on a disc of music by Walter
Zimmermann for Mode.
A pair of discs in which Skempton writes the music of the future
Howard Skempton’s solo clarinet Call (1983), heard on "Surface Tension" in a sensitive reading by John Corbett, tells me that I enjoy thinking about Skempton’s music as much as I enjoy hearing it. Carefully placed around Call’s largely open-ended, downriver rhythmic currents is a motif knitted together from "swung" quavers, which right away evokes Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and reminds you how often English composers of a certain generation and aesthetic persuasion, writing their generic fast-slow-fast wind concertos and sonatas, try to sex up their pallid rhythmic oom-pahs with a jazzy shot in the arm.
Skempton – clever him – manages to have it both ways, though. That momentary sense of swimg is like a wry slap on the wrist, delivered entirely without rancour or hectoring, towards such transatlantic tendencies. But he also wants listeners to derive pleasure from those peaks of rhythmic exhilaration, and so gives them prominence in the structure like a punctuating semi-quote, a knowing reference to material from outside his orbit. You hear, you enjoy, and then think about how more cavalier composers freeload off the gestural surface of jazz.
"Surface Tension" is terrific, and each of its 28 miniatures finds Skempton similarly probing the substructures of musical language: the 44-second left-hand piano piece Passing Fancy (written for Benjamin Britten!) turns unto a primer about the British lyrical impulse; Surface Tension itself sounds like Frank Bridge refracted through John Cage’s love of Satie. Mode’s other Skempton release, "Bolt from the Blue", pairs Daniel Becker’s serene accounts of solo piano music with choral settings performed by Exaudi. Five Poems of Mary Webb and Two Poems of Edward Thomas might have appeared at any point during the last four centuries – and Skempton’s reimagining of basic harmonic principles (false relations allowed to sound false again) could still be a going concern during the next 400 years, too.
Becker is more matter-of-fact than John Tilbury’s model 2001 Sony accounts, although even he can’t avoid The Durham Strike tipping into sentimentality. But too much mainstream contemporary music dazzles with the science of complex surfaces, or at worst nondescript clutter. Nothing to hear or think about there, but Skempton sounds like a future to me.
-Philip Clarke, Gramophone Magazine
© Mode Records