In a Dark Time, This Music Will Make You Smile

In a Dark Time, This Music Will Make You Smile

Last fall, when the world was being told to expect a long, dark winter after what had already been a brutal year, I decided to search for some new, bracing orchestral music. It had been months since I’d been walloped by symphonic forces in a live setting. And if it was to be grim times ahead, I wanted at least some music that gestured toward that sense of scale.

Thanks to the British label NMC Recordings, I quickly found what I was looking for in the Irish composer Ed Bennett’s “Freefalling,” the opening track from his October release “Psychedelia.”

Ten minutes long, it is a testament to truth in titling: a frenetic ride that blends queasy glissandos with rousing exclamations fit for an action-movie montage. That same mixture of experimentalism and show business can be heard elsewhere on the album, like the multi-movement “Song of the Books.” I made a note to check in with NMC more frequently.

In the half-year since, the label has continued to put out a string of winning recordings, including, this month, “Nature,” the first full-length collection of orchestral pieces by the English composer Tansy Davies. Like Bennett, Davies isn’t afraid of obvious debts to cinema; some of the high-flown motifs in the first movement of her “What Did We See?” might bring to mind John Williams’s “Star Wars” scores. But the rest of her four-piece suite has its own ruggedly lyrical identity. And the glinting, melodically fragmented Davies piano concerto that gives the album its title is another showstopper.

When I heard “Nature” alongside “This Departing Landscape,” a lush February release from the Scottish composer Martin Suckling, it was clear that NMC entered the pandemic with a strong production schedule already in place. While the label has long balanced nurturing young (sometimes very young) talent with serving as a kind of house label for Britain’s established avant-garde, this recent spate of recordings has been noticeably light on veteran names. (Bennett and Davies are in their 40s; Suckling turns 40 later this year.)

A sense of patient, spectral unease is alive in Suckling’s second track, “Release,” which sounds as if it’s incorporated some lessons from the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

The liner notes for “This Departing Landscape” include an encomium from one the British scene’s elders, Julian Anderson. Anderson observes that Suckling has studied with the American composer Martin Bresnick, as well as with George Benjamin, who is British, but that his output resembles the work of none of his teachers.

When praising Suckling’s “bewilderingly diverse” Piano Concerto, Anderson asks, “How can the hyperactive polyrhythms of the opening part belong in the same climate as the vast landscape of the central slow movement, or as the complex deployment of extended instrumental techniques in movement four?”

His short answer to his own question is that this music is “rich, generous, exuberant and positive,” and that the “power of the contrasts” seems persuasive, even on a first listen.

Suckling’s worldliness helps make those contrasts possible. In a recent interview for the website Presto Classical, he highlighted his interest in Morton Feldman (1926-87), whose meditative sensibility also informs contemporary American composers like Tyshawn Sorey. Discussing Feldman’s extraordinarily long later works, Suckling has said that “there’s a hugely touching intimacy in spite of the scale.” He’s after something similar in his Piano Concerto, underneath all that whirling variation.

There are likewise diverse references in the works of the other younger composers on the NMC roster. Davies made her name with chamber works featuring funk-forward bouquets, including “Neon.” She has also described her “Grind Show” as “a superimposition of two scenes: the foreground in a bawdy dance hall, and the background a rainy landscape at night.”

If this eclecticism feels familiar in British contemporary music, that’s perhaps thanks to composer Thomas Adès, 50, who made use of a four-to-the-floor techno rhythm in the third movement of “Asyla” (1997). His taste runs to antic juxtapositions like embedding a lullaby within the otherwise hyper-complicated score of his opera “The Exterminating Angel.”

Younger artists have taken this as a kind of permission slip and run with it. Another artist with an April release on NMC makes his debt to multiple traditions clear. In Alex Paxton’s notes for his new album “Music for Bosch People,” he puts it this way: “minimal but loads more notes like video-games but with more song like jazz but much more gay like old music but more current like yummy sweet.” (It goes on like that for a while.)

This is much more manic than Suckling’s music; it sounds like something that might come out on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. (As it happens, Paxton has been commissioned to write an essay for Zorn’s ongoing “Arcana” book series.) But Suckling is a supporter of Paxton’s contrast-heavy sound world, recently writing on Twitter, “This is the most joyous sound I’ve heard in ages!”

However the alchemy is being achieved, the results currently coming out of the NMC laboratory are a boon for listeners. As pandemic restrictions (eventually) recede, and as American orchestras think about contemporary programming, they might follow the lead of some scattered groups like the Lost Dog New Music Ensemble in Queens, and begin bringing some of these composers’s large-ensemble works across the Atlantic.

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