bolt from the blue
1. Starlight 1:22 *◊
2. Guitar Caprice 0:49 *◊
3. Horham 0:43 *◊
4. Lyric Study 0:45 *◊
5. Liebeslied 1:05 *◊
6. Memorial Prelude 1:10 *◊
Five Poems of Mary Webb ◊
12. The Snare 2:00
13. Rose-berries 1:25
The Mold Riots ◊
24. Leamington Spa 2:15 *◊
25. The Durham Strike 5:48 *
26. Music 2:32 ◊
27. Snape Interval 1:18 ◊
Two Poems of Edward Thomas
30. Four by the Clock 1:30 ◊
31. Music, when soft voices die 1:20 ◊
32. Bolt from the Blue 1:09 *◊
33. Monogram 1:44 *◊
34. Decision Time 1:12 *◊
35. Sweet Chariot 1:17 *
36. Well, well, Cornelius 3:30 *
37. He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven 4:02
◊ First recording
Howard Skempton’s music strikes a chord with many listeners through its deceptive simplicity, beauty and accessible nature. A student of Cornelius Cardew, Skempton was greatly influenced by Satie, Cage and Feldman.
This CD of miniatures intersperses choral works with solo piano pieces. The texts for the choral works come from Mary Webb, Edward Thomas, Emerson, Judith Cramond and Longfellow.
Liner notes by the composer, who also supervised the choral recording sessions.
Skempton was born in 1947 in Chester, England, and has worked as composer, accordionist and music publisher. His music has appeared on many labels, including Sony Classical, Mode, NMC and Delphian.
EXAUDI was proclaimed by Gramophone magazine as “… ¦one of the most sensationally gifted vocal groups performing in the UK at the moment.” Since its debut in 2002, EXAUDI has emerged as one of Britain’s leading contemporary music ensembles with a repertoire that ranges from Ockeghem to Xenakis.
James Weeks founded EXAUDI in 2002, and maintains a busy international touring and recording schedule with the group. He was appointed Musical Director of the New London Chamber Choir in 2007.
I fell in love with Howard Skempton’s Lento many years ago – a radiant, stately slice of sun-drenched English minimalism which baffles as much as delights: how can such a simple set of chord progressions be so alluring?
Skempton was born in 1947 and studied with the English composer Cornelius Cardew in the 1960s, who he credits with helping him discover a radically simple musical language. Skempton’s sleeve note quotes Britten, who remarked that it was “difficult to write simple music with character”. The collection of piano and choral minatures on this CD are remarkable – their musical language at times naively direct and simple, but never ever simplistic. The piano minatures dominate, and a careful listen reveals just how varied Skempton's defiantly tonal language is – the sudden fortissimo chords in the second part of The Mold Riotsshock, as does the unexpected rapid movement in the Guitar Caprice. And Skempton’s offbeat tribute to his birthplace Leamington Spa deserves to be blasted out of loudspeakers in the town centre.
The vocal music is, if anything, more affecting; the quartet of womens’ voices in the Five Poems of Mary Webb sound delicious. A setting of James Stephens’s The Snare provides a welcome dash of astringency. There are 37 works on this beautifully produced disc, and sadly there’s no space to rhapsodise about each one. Daniel Becker plays the piano works with modesty and affection, and James Weeks’s Exaudi sing the choral pieces with a combination of warmth and unnerving accuracy.
Listening to the limpid canonic vocal writing of Music, When Soft Voices Die and the delicate fugual interplay of The Mold Riot’s first movement, you might find it hard to believe that 63 year old Howard Skempton was once a loyal footsoldier in The Scratch Orchestra, but it’s worth recalling that unashamedly tonal harmony and a fondness – not nostalgia – for traditional classical and folk forms have always been a hallmark of English experimental music. The 26 pieces on this album span a period of more than three decades, from 1973’s Sweet Chariot to 2004’s Snape Interval (Snape as in Benjamin Britten, not Harry Potter), but you’d never guess. Unlike his composition teacher in the late 1960s, Cornelius Cardew, it’s impossible to speak of early, middle or late period Skempton. It’s as if he arrived on the scene with his notion of exquisite miniatures fully formed. Like a bolt from the blue, as it were.
Pieces like Memorial Prelude and the three Nocturnes, played attentively and discreetly by pianist Daniel Becker, would make perfect test material for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, but the simplicity of Skempton’s music is deceptive. Harmonically, with its occasional false relations and parallel fifths, it looks back further in time than the beloved Satie to earlier English models such as Tallis and Taverner. It’s precisely these little tinges of eccentricity – the incorporation of odd dissonant leaps into Liebeslied, the wrong-note Scott Joplin vamp of Resister, and a tendency to cadence abruptly, almost as if the music is embarrassed by itself – that dispel any notion of mawkishness. Even so, this is music that wears its heart very much on its sleeve. The close harmony settings of Mary Webb, Emerson, Longfellow, Edward Thomas and WB Yeats, performed with remarkable attention to detail and evident affection by James Weeks’s vocal ensemble EXAUDI, are as moving as they are modest. The final setting of Yeat's “He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven” is simply exquisite.
Howard Skempton: Bolt From The Blue
A Christmas delight that avoids the high Cs
Bolt from the Blue is a new CD from the New York based Mode label which was Alex Ross’ 2009 label of the year. It brings together Howard Skempton’s piano miniatures and music for voices in an intelligently planned and beautifully executed programme. The pianist is contemporary music specialist Daniel Becker whose contribution, which includes the title track, is captured in the piano-friendly acoustic of Potton Hall here in East Anglia. Exaudi directed by James Weeks provide the choral contribution which was recorded in St Silas, Chalk Farm.
This is an outstanding disc of genuinely original and beautiful music. It comes from an important composer who remains outside contemporary music's fashionable inner circle and it would be very surprising if many (any?) of the works on it are already in reader’s CD collections. It is also a true Christmas delight that avoids the two high Cs of Cowell (Simon not Henry) and Cage (John not Chris Palko). Need I say more?
Skempton: Bolt from the Blue
There are 37 tracks on this skilful interweaving of Howard Skempton’s works for piano and those for unaccompanied voices. But as his admirers know so well, Skempton is the master of the unassuming miniature, and each of these tiny pieces says more in just a couple of minutes (or just seconds in some cases) than many composers manage in 10 times as long. A number of the piano pieces that Daniel Becker plays with such winning simplicity are tributes or memorials to Skempton’s friends and colleagues – one of the longer tracks here, Well, Well Cornelius, is a gentle lullaby composed in 1982, the year after Cornelius Cardew’s shocking death; Memorial Prelude remembers the pianist David Tudor; Starlight was a 50th-birthday present to the composer Michael Finnissy; while Leamington Spa pays its respects to Skempton’s own home town. But his choral writing is exquisite, too, sometimes intricately chromatic, sometimes blamelessly diatonic and seen at its greatest extent in the sublime He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven with which the sequence ends, yet equally effective in the tiny pair of settings of poems by Edward Thomas or the cycles based on Mary Webb and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The disc contains no texts unfortunately – the only blemish on a beautifully conceived and realised collection.
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
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