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CD Review

Peter J. Martin

180°

  • Birds of Passage *
  • Versations of Summer *
  • Pebble & Stream
  • Isotope *
  • Cloud Shaping *
  • Versations in Winter *
  • Clandestinus Silva *
  • Foret Berceuse
* Josie Ryan, soprano
PJ Martin Sound Assembly
La Guardian Records PM004 44m
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This is a very interesting collection of works by contemporary Australian composer Peter Martin. It is a mixture of vocal and instrumental compositions, some of which are fairly light in character while several are quite serious. Even the more serious works, however, have what might be described as a dreamy manner rather than dark or tragic one. One thing you notice about Martin's style is that the vocal or melody line is typically slow, but usually heard against faster or at least livelier instrumental playing. I would say his music here is somewhat eclectic, though quite recognizable and distinct. It features many busy bell-like sonorities that sound like their source is a vibraphone or celesta. Often, too, you hear a modal thematic line that is contrasted by very modern-sounding writing in the secondary lines. Themes are tonal or modal, though not always easily grasped at first hearing. In the end, his music may initially seem like a clash of styles, but it is more correctly a synthesis of disparate elements.

Regarding the album's title, the composer has written that "180° is a song cycle that began with the setting to music of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and continued with the bird focus to express images of the Australian coastline. It became apparent that 180° was my limit of image at any point in time."

As the heading indicates, the works here are scored for chamber ensemble of strings, flute, clarinet, keyboards, and percussion. Six of the numbers feature a dominant vocal part: one, Cloud Shaping, is a vocalise, but the other five could be called songs, I suppose, and all but the first feature texts by the composer.

The opening number, Birds of Passage, features the Wadsworth setting referenced above. It has the kind of dreamy quality one hears in much of the music in Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yet, the music hardly imitates Britten: it features a slow, ethereal vocal line and somewhat similar string sonorities, contrasted by often anxious accompaniment from the other instruments. The ensuing Versations of Summer does not significantly break away from this mood, but the instrumental Pebble & Stream is bright and chipper, rhythmically bouncy and brimming with an infectious joyous energy.

At about nine and a half minutes Isotope is the longest number on the disc. It has a slow-motion opening in the vocal line but woodwinds and keyboard push things forward as the text tells of mysterious things – isotopes, relentless passage of time, and change. This is perhaps the deepest work on the disc and maybe the most challenging for the listener as well. The ensuing Cloud Shaping may by contrast may be the most Romantic sounding of the works here. Versations in Winter reaches into the ethereal realm again, though here the music, like Winter, is less sunny and a bit gray in mood.

Clandestinus Silva contrasts a dreamy vocal line with energetic and upbeat instrumental activity. The text speaks of birdsong and sights of nature, and ultimately this may be another of the more substantive and rewarding works here. The closing number, Foret Berceuse, is an instrumental piece that does not sound like a Forest Lullaby, though it takes the listener into a strange sound world of wandering and seeming indecision.

Soprano Josie Ryan, known as a medieval music specialist, has a beautiful voice and sings the texts with utter commitment. True, sometimes her words can get lost in the sonic fabric, but this is a minor blemish that may well be due to the miking setup. The instrumentalists (Christa Powell & Warwick Adeney, violin; Bernard Hoey, viola; Patrick Murphy & Robert Manley, cello; Alexsis Kenny, flute; Brian Catchlove, clarinets; PJ Martin, keyboards; Don James, percussion) play brilliantly throughout as well. Indeed, and as the proceedings are supervised by the composer, one could hardly hope for more authentic performances. The sound reproduction is good and texts are provided. Is the music of exceptional quality, you ask? Here's where I must hedge a bit: ultimately one must digest Martin's music over a greater time span as his works here are quite individual though not boldly original or revolutionary. One can say they can offer significant rewards to the listener though, especially to those interested in contemporary vocal music of a mostly accessible character.

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings

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