A student of Robin Holloway and Alexander Goehr (while at Cambridge University) and Michael Finnissy (at Southampton University), Ed Hughes is a composer with an individual voice and a concise way of saying what he has to say. His music is compelling.
Ed Hughes formed The New Music Players in 1990. They give a sterling account of the first piece, a quartet, for clarinet, cello, violin, and piano. The weeping descending lines, which descend like a sonic representation of raindrops on a windowpane, fall at different rates. As a technique it is not complex, but the result is mightily effective, and indeed the technique itself turns out to be a Hughes characteristic.
The Chamber Concerto started out for 13 instruments before finally coalescing into a seven-player version, and it is this slimmed-down score we hear here. This is very different, with some jazzy, syncopated passages opening the music out to the possibility of lighter pastures. There are constants, though, especially the use of polyphonic layering (which the composer states is the reason that there is no clear closure at the end of movements: strata co-exist, and then the music ends). Pianist Richard Casey (heard on the second disc as solo pianist) also contributes the eloquent booklet notes. He is clearly immersed in Hughes’s music, and has no problems making easy references to Hughes’s film scores. The performance is remarkably assured.
It is the idea of war that created the starting point of Dark Formations, a collaboration between the composer and David Chandler, professor of photography at the University of Plymouth. Indeed, one of the photos, that of a Lancaster bombing Hamburg in 1943, is reproduced on the booklet cover. Casey accurately describes Hughes’s piece as “static and monumental,” a fascinating study in shades of gray that is nevertheless somehow mutely scintillating. Oxymoron though that sounds, it remains fascinatingly true. The hushed performance of Dark Formations here is remarkable in its glowering intensity. The Dark Formations project is ongoing, incidentally.
The piece titled Strike! (2006) was in fact a study for the scoring of Eisenstein’s film of that name. Again scored for small ensemble, it inhabits a very different world from Dark Formations. Full of magical instrumentation, it includes some passages that can only be described as quirky and, like so much of the music on this release, it draws in those listeners of insatiably curious nature. The Sextet is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, marimba/vibraphone, and piano. The first movement is inspired by the alto line chant from John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. Once one has grasped the reference, it adds a new dimension (the swirling overlapping descending lines will have become quite familiar by now). There is a fine compositional technique on display here. The use of Minimalism, albeit not in its purest form, comes as a small but pleasant surprise for the second movement (Minimalism is after all the logical extension of the overlapping, layering methodology), while it is the ground that inspires the finale. Over the slow-moving bass, a flute pipes most enthusiastically (the flutist here, Rowland Sutherland, plays stunningly). Finally for the first disc, Light Cuts Through the Dark Skies. A 2001 commission for music to Joris Ivens’s 1929 silent film of Amsterdam, Regen, it rather bizarrely begins like the song Anything Goes! (or is it just me?) before moving into more familiar Hughes territory. It is an intriguing score (it has also been performed by the present players in a concert in which another score, Eisler’s Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben, was performed to the same film).
The piano piece Orchids was composed between 1990 and 2002. The idea of the title is that it suggests patterns that underlie surface changes. Mancunian Richard Casey is a new pianist to me, but I do hope to meet him again on record or in the concert hall. He plays Hughes’s beautiful score with the utmost transparency (he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester with Martin Roscoe and Ronan O’Hara). Judging from his biography, Casey saturates himself in contemporary music, and on the present offering it shows. His myriad colorings are captured in the exemplary recording. Whether delineating lines (“Orchid 3”), evoking a darker side (“Orchid 2”), or displaying a more virtuoso element (“Orchid 5”), it is clear Casey is a musician’s musician. Perhaps Hughes’s imagination soars highest in the sixth and final Orchid, where weeping descending phrases against pounded long-sustained bass notes make for a powerful effect.
The vocal piece A Buried Flame is for either solo voices (SSAATBarB) or chorus, drawing its texts from the Psalms (No. 69) and the poetry collection Guantanamo (University of Iowa Press, a collection of poems by former or current detainees at Guantanamo Bay). It is given here one voice to a part. Hughes’s message is one of hope in a future reconciliation between the various religious factions. His emotion seems remarkably heartfelt; his setting of the Psalm is remarkably gentle. The other poems are by Ibrahim Al Rubaish, Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost, and Moazzam Begg. It is difficult to put across the sheer devotion of this recording. It seems to convey all of the inner pain and, at base level, humanitarianism that the composer feels. It also demonstrates remarkably fine scoring. The performance is simply outstanding (a special mention to the sopranos Fleur Bray and Bridget Kerrison for their sheer stamina is in order). Although this is the only vocal piece on the two discs, it remains a powerful statement and one that reverberates long after the music finishes. From that standpoint, it is the perfect way to end a most stimulating release. I do urge you to hear this.