Howard Skempton - Surface Tension



Howard Skempton

(b. 1947)

mode 61

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Mode Records - A Record Label Devoted to New Music Surface Tension

Sarah Leonard, soprano
Howard Skempton, accordion
HCD Productions


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.


REVIEWS

Howard Skempton
Surface Tension


Whatever happened to English Experimental Music? Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman used to go to the football every Saturday afternoon; Bryars's Experimental Music Catalogue was a wonderful ramshackle affair run from his London home (I still remember the thrill of opening my plastic box containing George Brecht's "Water Yam"..); Brian Eno's Obscure records were eagerly anticipated (probably the worst quality vinyl pressings I've ever heard)...

Other figures of English Experimentalism didn't achieve the same acclaim as Gavin, Michael and Brian, however. One such unjustly neglected figure is Howard Skempton (born in Chester in 1947, now resident, appropriately enough for his self-effacing image, in the Midlands town of Leamington Spa), whose music is finally available to us on this excellent CD, lovingly played by HCD (an offspin of the Ensemble Modern) and Skempton himself on accordion. "Webern meets Satie for a cup of tea" goes Mode's marketing spin, but there's a rich vein of traditional English folk to Skempton's music too, especially evident in the accordion pieces. The music is arranged in a roughly symmetrical order around the two "Surface Tension" pieces, the second of which is the CD's longest track at just under eight minutes (the shortest piece included is 1969's "African Melody", a cello snapshot of twelve seconds!). "Surface Tension I" (1975) is a gently flowing piece reminiscent of Satie (anticipating Bryars' late seventies works, such as "The Vespertine Park" by several years), while "Surface Tension II" is worthy of Feldman at his finest, a beautifully scored study in stillness. The 1980s song settings--pay special attention to the composer's own texts--are splendidly sung by that doyenne of British sopranos, Sarah Leonard, and the solo instrumental works (variously for cello, horn, viola, flute and oboe) played with deceptive simplicity. The accordion works "Recessional" and "Lament" are especially touching; Skempton writes in his minimal (obviously) liner notes that "most of the pieces were written for friends. Writing small, occasional pieces has been central to my life as a composer. They can be written quickly, disseminated cheaply and performed frequently. Other factors are a delight in immediacy, a passion for refinement and compression and an absorption in sound itself."

As the twentieth century stumbles to a close in a confused daze of apocalyptic prophecy and information overload, it's comforting to know that composers such as Skempton are out there, writing pieces as simple, modest and--let's not be ashamed to say it--beautiful as "Under the Elder". A truly magnificent CD--go buy it.
---Dan Warburton, Paris Transatlantic Review,
    November 2000


Howard Skempton
Surface Tension


"Another contemporary Brit composer deserves a wider audience. Howard Skempton writes brilliantly austere music. His CD single, Lento is only 13 minutes long, but it's orchestrally powerful. The 28 miniatures in Surface Tension (mode) are works of majestic precision."
---Leopold Froehlich, Playboy Magazine, June 1999


Howard Skempton
Surface Tension


"This disc is a complilaton of 28 little pieces written by Skempton (b 1947) between 1969 and 1993, mostly for friends. He is a master of musical haiku. Even the 12 seconds of African Melody for the pizzicato cello make a telling effect. A typical Skempton miniature is at once a whimisical poem, an ultra-condensed technical study, and a tiny eclat. The sequence begins with a left-hand piano piece and end with a right-hand one. There are accordion solos played by the composer himself. Moto Perpetuo for viola and the third of Three Pieces for Oboe cleverly use grace note to suggest two-part writing. There is an actual duo for for drums; two duos for drum and piano; a couple of relatively extended (seven-of eight-minute) Feldman-like trios, both called Surface Tension; and some haunting vocal settings. Deceptively bold and completely without self-pity, Skempton is the Webern among our minimalists. The disc deserves to be as popular as that of his orchestral Lento."
---Paul Driver, Sunday Times, July 19th 1998

 

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



Related Resources:

Ensemble Modern on Mode:
John Cage: The Piano Concertos (mode 57)

Howard SKEMPTON: bolt from the blue (piano & choral works) (mode 226)

Cathy Milliken on Mode:
Giacinto Scelsi: Music For High Winds (mode 102)

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