Fabrice Bollon’s Compositions

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awardBOLLON: Your Voice Out of the Lamb / Michala Petri, rec; Per Salo, kbds; Michaela Fukacová, cel; Odense Symphony Orch.; Christoph Poppen, cond / 4 Lessons of Darkness* / Johannes Moser, el-cel; Deutsches Radio Philharmonic Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern; Nicholas Milton, cond / Dogmatic Pleasures+ / Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg; Jader Bignamini, cond / Naxos 8.574015 (live: *Saarbrücken, April 17, 2011; +Freiburg, February 26, 2019)

Fabrice Bollon, who until this moment I had never heard of, studied conducting with three of the best baton-wavers of the last century, Michael Gielen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Georges Prêtre. He worked as musical assistant at the Salzburg Festival until 1998, was deputy musical director at Oper Chemnitz (2000–04), was chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra (1996–2000) and since 2009 he has been general music director/chief conductor at Germany’s Theater Freiburg. In recent years he has also become a composer; these are some of his works.

Your Voice Out of the Lamb was commissioned by the outstanding recorder player Michala Petri. In the liner notes, Bollon explains that “I wanted to explore new possibilities using the recorder, employing the instrument as a crazy vocalist, and introducing different effects more usually used in pop music, such as delays, reverberation, loops and pitch-shift(s).” And does he ever! I would also add that he uses a solo bass, playing slowly, in almost a jazz manner, as a timekeeper that slightly drags the beat to produce a feeling of syncopation beneath it all. The opening is slow, moody and atmospheric with only a bit of Petri playing alto recorder, while the quick second movement opens with electric piano before introducing Petri playing rapid bitonal running eighth-note figures on the regular recorder. Again there is syncopation, although not so strongly jazz-biased except for that crazy running bass line. One also hears a xylophone here and there, and the keyboardist switches to celesta as the music suddenly pulls back in tempo and volume while soft, high winds play fluttering figures overhead. Petri now plays further running figures, but not quite so “crazy” as before, against the celesta and bass. And what fascinated me most about this piece was the way Bollon kept these disparate sections united, as if they were logical extensions of each other rather than isolated movements. The rapid pace and running recorder eighth-note figures then return, the keyboardist turn to a synthesizer while a solo flute duplicates the synth’s top line as the music almost sounds “techno.”

Petri then explores the music in almost tentative-sounding figures, played softly, as if she can’t quite figure her way out of this musical maze. Eventually she takes to playing repeated flutter tones on the pitch A, then moves down into her lower range to play similar echo effects on other notes while the orchestra is reduced to soft rumblings in the background. We then hear what sounds like a solo violin but is actually a solo cello playing very high up in its range. I also give a great deal of credit to conductor Christoph Poppen for holding all of this music together; it certainly couldn’t have been an easy task considering the eclectic nature of the score. About midway through the third movement (“Slow”), Petri is heard playing a jolly little tune that suddenly turns menacing as staccato trumpet figures and rumbling percussion create a stir behind her, but this too settles down to an uneasy passage in D minor in which one hears what sounds like a chorus in the background (probably a synthesizer or a tape loop) which keeps up the uneasy feeling. This is “ambient music” with a real difference! The way Bollon has scored this section, it almost sounds as if the music were “bottomless,” i.e., that the deepest instrument one hears still has “undertones” that run even deeper than the naked ear can hear.

Towards the end (at about 7:05) the music suddenly picks up in tempo and volume as Petri plays passages that seem to run counter to the rest of the orchestra—certainly, in a somewhat different tonality. She also seems to be playing along with the synth, which gives her playing a strange tonal quality. Loud trumpet fanfares emerge, alternating with an electric organ and the recorder and underscored by aggressive snare drums along with that crazy bass. This passage, though written out, could easily be mistaken as a piece for modern jazz orchestra, and of course it continues into the last movement, titled “Fast and Brilliant.” We end with trumpet section trills, a recorder “break,” and then a quick fanfare finale.

4 Lessons of Darkness, a Concerto for Electric Cello and Orchestra, is Bollon’s interpretation of the Four Temperaments, Earth, Fire, Water and Air. This is much more of an edgy atonal work, employing a number of different orchestral effects; the first movement, to my ears, sounded exactly like something that Ligeti would have written. (I am, of course, guessing since Bollon admits to no specific musical influences in the liner notes.) At midpoint, however, we veer away from Ligeti towards something more lyrical and tending towards tonality as the electric cello plays against a backdrop of sustained wind and string tones and what sounds like electronic percussion. As Bollon put it in the notes:

The references to jazz and pop in this work, and in my music more generally, should not be thought of as being ‘crossover’. Having conducted works by modern composers of all styles, I am very familiar with contemporary works, and this plays an important role in my musical language. But I refuse to think in terms of exclusivity. Boulez’s ‘Supermarket’ concept – you find everything in there, but nothing of quality – is, in my opinion, a very poor understanding of necessary eclecticism. An ‘ivory tower’ attitude, such as that of Mallarmé, would surely bring about the end of art, as prophesized in Hermann Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel. Making art more and more complex only perpetuates a cycle of art for ‘specialists’, which garners snobbery, and encourages charlatanism. It is not my purpose to make art more understandable, but it is my purpose to be understandable even in the parts that are very complex. The complexity is not the purpose of the art in itself, it is my choice to write in this way, if I decide to do so. The purpose of writing is to express, and make what is being expressed understandable and convincing.

And the music becomes very dark and edgy indeed in the second part, “Fire.” The fast rhythms used here are neither jazz nor pop, but essentially fast classical rhythms, thus the orchestra and soloist are able to encompass them without difficulty. One thing I gave a lot of credit to Bollon for is his unique approach to orchestration. No longer is he thinking of the orchestra in the accepted, academic classical sense, but taking it apart and putting it back together again as he sees fit. This is even more advanced than the work of Ligeti or Segerstam. Most of the time, the listener does not hear or think of the orchestra in terms of its classical configuration, but as a series of sounds, often discrete, rubbing up against one another. Among his few predecessors in this respect are outliers like Harry Partch and Marius Constant. Incidentally, this recording comes from the world premiere performance of the work given on April 17, 2011.

By the time we reach “Air,” the music approaches something like a rock beat but does not stay there long. On the contrary, it slows down and becomes quite dark and edgy, with the soloist playing fast atonal figures as if trying to escape from the sudden menacing soundworld around him. What sounds like an electric bass plays quick, double-time figures in the background as the orchestral ambience becomes eerier. Could the “electric bass” I hear be the electric cello? Possibly, though without the score I won’t say for sure. We then return to the rock beat nonsense while the soloist plays a strange series of figures against the orchestra; then a sudden decelerando and we are almost into jazz territory. To quote the late Red Buttons, “Strange things are happening!

Dogmatic Pleasures “plays with these apparent paradoxes – dogma and pleasure, short and long – and thus supplies the cosmic components of these pieces.” Bollon describes the three portions of this work as “short, virtuosic orchestral pieces…intended to be fun,” and fun they are. The first consists of “Scales and Chords,” the second a “Marriage in Bb Major,” and the third “Waiting For My Plane.” But since this is Bollon writing the music and not John Williams, the “fun” contained herein is more complex and more subjective than one would imagine. Bollon has a restless musical mind, thus one is continually surprised by his shifts in mood and musical materials. Nothing is sacred, yet nothing is simple: that, I think, sums up Bollon’s aesthetic in a nutshell. Even in the lightest and “silliest” passages, such as the finale of “Scales and Chords” which almost sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon gone crazy, there is still structure and direction. Nothing in his music rambles or is superfluous, not even the tonal monotony of “Marriage in Bb Major,” which stays in that one key from start to finish. Bollon maintains interest by means of increasing textural complexity, layering different elements as the music progresses, and towards the end he finally relents and introduces some alternate chords.

The third movement, “Waiting for My Plane,” opens with percussion and whistling sounds like a plane landing; when the orchestra enters, they are playing edgy bitonal figures, which drop out to allow the percussion section and trombones to have their say. Then glockenspiel, clarinets and flutes come in followed by edgy string figures that build in intensity. Maybe Bollon’s plane is coming from the Bizarro world! The French horns play rapid figures, then drop out as the brass, high winds and percussion re-take the field. Things continue to morph as the piece progresses. There’s even a section where, again, it sounds as if a jazz big band is breaking out.

This is surely one of the best recordings of the year as well as one of the most original!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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