Aylward’s Celestial Forms and Stories

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AYLWARD: Daedalus. Mercury. Ephemera.* Narcissus. Ananke / Klangforum Wien: Vera Fischer, fl/a-fl/bs-fl; Olivier Vivarès, cl/bs-cl; Sophie Schafleitner, vln; Andreas Lindenbaum, cel except *Vivarès & Lindenbaum only. Last two tracks add Markus Deuter, ob; Dimitrios Polisoidis, vla; Florian Müller, pno; Björn Wilker, perc; Bernhard Zachhuber, cl/bs-cl repl. Vivarès; Finnegan Downie Dear, cond on all but Ephemera / New Focus Recordings FCR320

John Aylward is yet another composer who was born, started writing music without attending a conservatory or having a teacher, and yet has his music performed and wins awards all over the place. What a lucky guy!

Although written in different years ranging from 2014 to 2019, this is sort of Aylward’s “space album” although he doesn’t think of these pieces in terms of a suite. Judging from the opening, Daedalus, he is one of those modern composers who likes to use the “edgy-startling” style, presenting us with stiff, staccato rhythms played and spit out by various instruments, but as the piece develops we realize that this was just to set the rhythm for the first section. Indeed, as the music develops, Aylward slows things down and phrases his music with a legato feeling, showing that he has more than one “voice” as a composer. Indeed, by the 3:18 mark the music has become rather complex, using the bass clarinet to play a staccato counterpoint to the goings-on in the top line; several lines are in fact played simultaneously, creating a polyphonic web of sound. It is thus not music of great or personal emotions, but rather a very clever contrapuntal piece with lyrical interludes (mostly played by the violin and/or cello), yet I found it very effective music nonetheless.

Interestingly, although Mercury shares several traits in common with Daedalus, the approach is different enough to alert you that this is a different piece, and I appreciate that.. Aylward does, however, continue to rely on quick contrapuntal figures to make his points; apparently, this is his thing. Here, it sounds as if the cello is slapping its strings with the bow to create its own percussive sound at one point. (Maybe it’s just me, but at one point my mind flashed back to Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme music.) By the end of the piece, the music seemed to be more ambient (but in a good way) than structural.

The remaining pieces are variants on these motifs and ideas, modern, contrapuntal music with no set tonality and an imaginative use of the small forces involved (seven each on Narcissus and Anake but only two musicians on Ephemera). I was fascinated by the way Aylward was able to balance the various instrumental textures in the last two pieces; these show that he has a very fine ear for instrumental color, and in Narcissus he even uses some microtonal passages for the strings. Aylward also varies the rhythms a bit more in Narcissus. In Aneke, Aylward creates swirling, looping figures that give the impression of a musical kaleidoscope.

As is often the case with modern composers nowadays, one or two pieces in a concert including others’ music would make an interesting effect, but the continually challenging aesthetics demand so much close listening that a full program may wear on the listener. Nonetheless, this is a CD worth investigating. At least it’s not Chopin!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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