A feature of Harrison ‘s style: she seems to like beginning as if the music is wafting in from far away, then she becomes more emphatic and complex only to have it all fade or evaporate.
Learn something new every day. It’s a reasonable motto and it should keep the intellect alive. And if I’m tempted to think that I know – or know of – every significant Australian composer of concert music… well, openness to learning can shatter that illusion, too. That happened when I read the August 2001 issue of Gramophone. “Sadie Harrison (Australian-born and working in England) is in her mid-thirties,” the review began. Who? Clearly, I had to get this CD and hear it: not simply to discover a new composer – vitalising though that is – but especially because that English reviewer made it sound so interesting. I was not disappointed. The biographical details are interesting. Born in Adelaide, Harrison studied at the University of Surrey, then pursued a doctorate, under Nicola Lefanu at King’s College, University of London, and now lectures in music at Goldsmiths College (London). She is published by the University of York Music Press and this CD is to be followed soon by a second, which promises to include After Colonna, Three Expositions and the quin- tet, No Title Required. That last title is interesting because on the CD to hand all of the titles seem so important – at least to the composer – as triggers for the pieces, their genesis, textures and sometimes their texts as well. The work which gives the CD its collective title, Taking Flight (1999), is a string quartet and it is splendidly played by the Kreutzer Quartet, its dedicatees. It has a clear, close recording which – like every other track – makes the listener immediately involved in the performance; this sense remains as the music unfolds: it is often intense but never dense, it is as if the light and air enter easily. The composer’s note lists her influences in this piece – Birtwistle, Debussy, Gerhard and Bartok, all of which may be true though in music (as in cinema) one can become excessively referential – but, having read that, I simply ignored it and listened to the music. There are many soloistic flourishes in the score but what sustained my attention was Harrison’s adroit contrasting, throughout the piece, of the forthright, rhythmic feature with which she began against moments of real stillness, as well as her capacity to achieve contrast at any given moment – a very high violin note, for example, soft and sustained, against a low ppp cello. Traceries – that title refers to a Gothic window in Whitby Abbey – is a delicate work for violin and piano which she wrote in 1997 for the thirtieth birthday of the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved. It is gentle and delicate and he plays it here with real love – clearly, it was a valued present. It is based on a harmonic series, dreamy but deliberate. Listening to it I began to hear a feature of Harrison’s style: she seems to like beginning as if the music is wafting in from far away, then she becomes more emphatic and complex only to have it all fade or evaporate. This could become a mannerism but when the pieces are heard as individuals, it reveals a sense of the significance contrast in a work of art and how to achieve it. Impresa Amorosa (1996) is a suite of seven generally very short onomatopoeic piano pieces, taking its name from the little pictorial love-tokens which romantic knights and their ladiesexchanged. None of them is so long as to remotely outstay its welcome but sometimes one could fret about the risk that Harrison’s music tends to become becalmed. In Candle (“One light suffices in the dark”), for instance, I felt that the slightest breeze would extinguish the candle and the music but it is a graceful nocturne. Arcosolia (1999) and Aster (1995) are written for mixed chamber ensembles. Aster is a little song-cycle, of six rather cryptic sections, which opens and closes with chant-like writing for unaccompanied soprano, while its other movements match voice and instruments most imaginatively – a striking match staccato flute and violin at one point. The vocal line sung with great accuracy and confidence by Lesley-Jane Rogers, but with real affection, as well – has wide intervals but is mostly gentle and unforced. It has a wide compass, too, sometimes matching the high flute, sometimes being pushed to its deepest extreme by the persuasive cello. I’d love to hear Jane Edwards sing Aster in a concert. In fact, I’d be pleased to hear more of this interesting young woman’s work.