The Unusual Music of David Sawer

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SAWER: Rumpelstiltskin – Ballet Suite. Cat’s-Eye. April\March. Between / Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; Martyn Brabbins, cond / NMC NMCD251

This disc opens with the suite from David Sawer’s unusual ballet based on the story of Rumpelstiltskin. (Microsoft Word has apparently never heard of Rumpelstiltskin as it keeps underlining his name in red as a misprint.) A while back, I reviewed a musically excellent opera based on the story of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders and made the comment at that time that it’s always a little dicey doing an opera based on a fairy tale because fairy tales normally appeal to children (e.g., Hansel und Gretel), but ballet is an entirely different art form. Ballet is not intended to present DRAMA on the stage, just a balletic interpretation of a story; ballet is not meant to make you think, only to appreciate how the composer and choreographer make things work together. Thus we have such “classic” ballets as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty and an excellent modern one based on Alice in Wonderland. In this milieu, Rumpelstiltskin fits in just fine.

Sawer has also written operas, none of which I’ve heard (From Morning to Midnight, Skin Deep and The Skating Rink), thus I cannot comment, but the music for this 2011 suite, based on his complete score for ballet written in 2009, is definitely on the strange side. Even the rather quiet opening of the first piece, “The Idle Boast,” is full of bitonal passages that have a peculiar effect on the listener, and as the music progresses it just gets odder, with lumbering rhythms, biting trumpet fanfares, and even a French horn solo. This Rumpelstiltskin is apparently made of broken machine parts that were cobbled together by some drunken alchemist!

But really, I liked it very much, though I have a hard time imagining a ballet company actually dancing to this. One thing I particularly liked about it was that the music went somewhere; it wasn’t just lumbering effects without structure. In “Straw Into Gold,” Sawer uses lightly-played pizzicato strings to simulate the spinning wheel that the little gnome used to make his treasure. There are some very interesting backbeats in the music as it progresses, with just a hint of jazz rhythm that I liked as well. Mostly, this movement is scored for just strings and harp, at least until 2:32 when a blaring trumpet suddenly appears, followed by a tuba playing an odd melodic line while trombones and trumpets play above it.

“Wedding and Coronation” opens with high winds and brass playing a six-note falling motif around which the tuba and trombones insert their own commentary. The falling motif is then transformed into a repeating pattern of notes, with squawking clarinet around it, before the tension relaxes and we hear soft clarinets playing a melody above the lumbering brass. I was particularly struck by the way Sawer was able to split his orchestra up, using only a section or two at a time rather than as a homogenous unit as so many composers do. This movement develops strangely as well, with atonal flourishes and chords tossed in before moving on to an almost minimalist theme played by the clarinets in their lower register with string figures up top and other instruments moving the music along in the middle. At 5:15 in, we hear a solo flute playing a quirky figure against soft strings playing an awkward, almost backwards rhythm. Sawer certainly knows how to keep things diversified.

“Guessing Games” presents us with more asymmetrical brass figures, more or less developed with lightly-played string figures and the omnipresent tuba. Again, the orchestra sort of deconstructs before our ears, using such odd combinations as harp, piccolo and bassoon in one very quirky passage. Muted trumpets play a repeated fanfare, echoed by the clarinets, as a string bass temporarily replaces the tuba down below. “Rumpelstiltskin’s Last Dance” is equally bizarre, built around a lumbering and rhythmically asymmetrical figure that slowly builds in intensity. A very unusual and creative piece, which builds to a strong climax.

The second work on this disc, Cat’s-Eye, is described as follows in the publicity blurb:

Cat’s-Eye is inspired by the fantascope projector, with its spectacular optical tricks that shocked audiences in the 1800s. A simple device, called “l’oeil-de-chat,” caused these images to appear and disappear: as the eye closed, the source of light was extinguished.

220px-Prof._Stampfer's_Stroboscopische_Scheibe_No._XThe fantascope was also related to the phenakistiscope, the first “moving image” projector (left). The piece is divided, on the recording at least, into seven little parts lasting between 57 seconds long (the first one) and 5:22 (the last one), named according to the bar numbers in the score. I enjoyed this piece but felt , in a way, that it was just a bit more contrived than Rumpelstiltskin n that Sawer was purposely using rhythmic “winking” effects in the orchestra to simulate the effects of this optical illusion. Of course, you can’t replicate a visual effect in purely auditory terms; perhaps, in performance, spotlights on the performers go off and on as they play (which would surely be effective). Nonetheless, the music is striking and. even in the soft passages such as the third part beginning at bar 90, absorbing to listen to. At about the 2:46 mark in this movement, Sawer has the clarinets play odd figures in their lower range while “buzzing” on their reeds, followed by what sounded to me like scraping sounds in the background while piano, xylophone and strings play odd, edgy figures. The next section opens with a classical variant on wah-wah brass, the trumpets using plunger mutes to create an open-and-close effect in short staccato motifs. As the piece progresses, we hear Sawer using a great many unusual timbral effects and rhythmic shifts to keep the listener off-balance. By the time we reach the section beginning at bar 300, the music has split up, becoming more and more fragmented and terse.

April\March is described as describing “a reversal of time” exploring past and present. The music here is, for Sawer, more pastoral and a bit less edgy than the two preceding pieces, though it is constructed in a very interesting manner using short, lyrical violin motifs against which the clarinet in its low register, biting muted trumpets and pizzicato bass interject their own commentary. By the 6:44 mark time, or at least the tempo, is indeed “running backwards” as Sawer continues to use isolated, edgy figures. Ten minutes into it and all of the music is running backwards, at least from a rhythmic standpoint. At 14:30, he uses “punchy” figures in the brass to dislocate the rhythm still further. The one problem I had with this piece is that I felt it went on too long and repeated too many ideas.

The finale, Between, is a relatively short (5:42) but quirky piece for harp. It was an OK piece, nothing to write home about.

A mixed review, then. I really liked the first two works, but had reservations about the last two.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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