Exploring Diaz-Jerez’ “Maghek”

cover - SIGCD612

DIAZ-JEREZ: Ymarxa. Ayssuragan. Guanapay. Chigaday. Azaenegue. Erbane. Aranfaybo / Cristos Barrios, cl; Ricardo Descalzo, pno; Royal Scottish National Orch.; Eduardo Portal, cond / Signum Classics SIGCD612

Spanish composer Gustavo Diaz-Jerez has spent 10 years writing these seven tone poems dedicated to the Canary Islands. According to the liner notes, “The cycle takes its name, Maghek (‘the one who creates brightness’), from the sun-goddess of the Guanches, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Each piece is inspired by a specific locale on a different island; some resurrect forgotten stories. Naturalistic tonal painting (the sea, the wind, the rugged scenery) is a constant feature throughout the cycle.”

As in his previous works, Diaz-Jerez uses as his basis what he called the “spectralist movement, where timbre and timbre-harmony duality are essential elements.” He then tries to model his music in a natural and intuitive manner, and adds to it the “scientific-philosophical concept of ‘emergence,’” which he describes as “a characteristic of complex systems where the whole is richer than the mere sum of its constituent parts.”

With a whoosh of high instruments, including metallic-sounding percussion, we are immediately ushered into Diaz-Jerez’ unique sound world at the opening of Ymarxa (Tererife). To put it in layman’s terms, this is modern-harmony ambient music of a very high order, one geared towards a total immersion in sound but not an aesthetic that lulls one to sleep. I was struck, having recently heard it, by the similarities to Thomas de Hartmann’s 1909 composition The Yellow Sound which was nearly 60 years ahead of its time. There are brief passages for solo instruments (oboe, English horn, flute, etc.) but the emphasis is on a complete orchestral immersion. There are many little things going on in this music, but since this particular piece is rather slow-moving the ear picks them all up. I was also reminded, at different points in this score, of such composers as Segerstam, Ligeti and Kalevi Aho, but these influences may have simply come into play because all three of them use the same basic principles as Diaz-Jerez, not because he was consciously copying them. Eventually the tempo picks up and the music becomes a swirling mélange of sound with menacing brass and percussion punctuations. There’s also an extended violin solo in the middle of the piece, when the tempo quiets down once again (but only temporarily).

But the one thing this music does not do is to develop along traditional lines. The rather ambiguous and often elusive “themes” are juxtaposed as often as developed, but the total immersion of one’s mind into the music compensates for this. The second piece, Ayssuragan (La Palma), opens with a forlorn a cappella clarinet, to which soft percussion, flutes and high strings are eventually added, leading to a sudden “tumbling-down” of orchestral sound as the tempo picks up and we hear scurrying string figures as the solo clarinet embellishes his part. To be honest, though, this piece kind of bored me. I lost interest before it was halfway over and just sort of rode it out.

The last track on CD 1 is Guanapay (Lanzarote). This is a real Ligeti or Penderecki-like nightmare of violent, clashing sounds at the outset, which then subsides to allow what sounds like a prepared piano solo that somewhat resembles a cimbalom. But the loud, violent orchestral attacks resume and redouble. This must depict a sea-storm on one of the islands. Eventually the storm subsides and we hear a normal piano, yet the edginess remains, occasionally rearing its head to threaten once again. Eventually, rapid passages played against one another by the various sections of the orchestra (as Anna Russell once put it, the “scrape, bang and blow” instruments) which builds the music to some quite ferocious climaxes.

By and large, I think these orchestral tone poems should be listened to one at a time rather than all in one sitting as I did for this review. The shortest piece is the seventh and last at 11:50; all of the others are between 15 and 24 minutes long, and the music is so dense at times as to be somewhat overwhelming. Spacing them out gives the mind a chance to absorb and reflect on what has just been heard without having them pile up on top of one another. Interestingly, in the opening section of Chigaday (La Gomera), Diaz-Jerez throws in some Latin rhythms and percussion before moving on to slow and quiet, but tense, orchestral passages that feature swirling, swooping flutes above low strings and brass. This tone poem is considerably more complex than its predecessor, the music rising and falling in great emotional waves of sound, running the full gamut of Diaz-Jerez’ imagination and encompassing his world in microcosm. It is clearly one of the finest masterpieces in this set.

Azaenegue (Gran Canaria) is a dense musical labyrinth, a sort of broken clockwork of sound that overlaps and builds up via these tensions of sound. The strange sounds continue throughout; at the 20:45 mark, I wondered if the swooping trombones were meant to represent elephants. (Do they have any elephants on the Canary Islands? Somehow I doubt it.) Erbane (Fuerteventura) begins with a simulation of waves crashing on the shore with low tuba notes, leading to high-end sparkles of light and water by the upper winds and strings. Once again we are surrounded by soft-but-edgy string and wind playing as the music progresses. The last tone poem, Aranfaybo (El Hierro), follows a similar pattern to the others but with a different route.

This is a fascinating album, one definitely worth hearing—but in stages, as I mentioned earlier, and not in one fell swoop!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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