Sullen Earth - Ian Wilson (RVRCD80)


As shown by the pieces on this CD, Wilson’s music has retained its emotional impact through a period of rapid stylistic development. This arises in part from the frequent practice of presenting the compositional materials – be they melodies, harmonic sequences, or more complex gestures – with a minimum of dialectical adornment. This is not to say that Wilson’s music is neither dynamic nor unornamented - it is frequently both, and in Limena (1998) especially so. Here the core material is an elaborate piano fantasy (released as a solo piece under the title Lim) that encompasses both florid melody and expansive gestures across the keyboard. What is remarkable, however, is that the string parts are composed almost entirely from the pre-existing piano line. There is almost no exact doubling, but Wilson constructs rich string textures by inferring new contrapuntal lines from the piano part: the result resembles a cloud of vapour trails, as though one is hearing solo Bach in an echo chamber. Wilson manipulates this to bring particular perspectives on the piano part in and out of focus; any dialogue between piano and strings takes place out of the corner of the eye.

In the earliest piece here, The Capsizing Man and other stories (1994/1997), each of the five short movements draws inspiration from sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and obsessively pursues a particular mood or moment. The sliding, syncopated chromaticisms of ‘The Capsizing Man’ suggest an endless moment of overbalancing: a story without end, only endless replays. The thin, abrasive chords of ‘The Forest’ perhaps recall most directly the attenuated yet rugged figures for which Giacometti is known, but the expressionistic bumps of ‘Seated Woman’ are equally suggestive. The brevity of these pieces, however, allows no room for emotional release and tension is kept at a high level.

Sullen earth (2005) takes its title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, in which a mundane, earthbound life is transformed by “the lark at daybreak arising” that is love. Wilson says that it is only the title that connects his piece to the poem but, as a simple, medieval-sounding melody emerges near the end of the piece from the surrounding starkness, a similar transformation into lightness takes place.

Around the turn of the century Wilson moved away from the iridescent polyphonic-melodic style of Limena and sought a more objective technique. In many of his later pieces he is not afraid simply to present regions of one music or another, letting them talk for themselves. Wilson then arranges these musical chunks like coloured bricks to create tension and drama in the interplay of connections and juxtapositions. It’s a technique that reconsiders traditional conventions of form: attention is focused on the integrity of the musical materials themselves rather than their motivic, harmonic or contrapuntal development.

Composed for Gordana Matijevi Sullen earth is among the starkest examples of this later style. At times, such as the passages of arpeggio supported by the lightest orchestral touches, the music has almost been bleached completely white. Wilson has said that he seeks in his music to “enliven the notes with a certain emotional resonance”. In Sullen earth this takes place through a judicious use of resources: there are hints of Limena’s florid melodicism, as well as quartertones and other carefully extended techniques, but these become points of colour rather than the predominant style.

The high-friction juxtaposition of formal blocks requires some sort of release, a way of reconciling the conflicting elements, or sidestepping them entirely. In several pieces Wilson inserts new, often contemplative material as a means of releasing pressure; hence the melodic interruption in Sullen earth. But even in the structurally more uniform Limena the various elements are juxtaposed at ever decreasing intervals, as though enclosing the piece in a hall of mirrors. The piece turns so tightly in on itself that the only way out is a complete change of direction. The coda of funereal bell-tones gives a tragic twist to the delicate filigree that precedes it. It is characteristic of the raw emotion under the surface of all Wilson’s music.

 © Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2009

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