Steve Elcock’s Music: Mania, Dreams, Heartbreak

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WAP 2022ELCOCK: Symphony No. 7. Manic Dancing.* Symphony No. 6, “Tyrants Destroyed” / *Marina Kosterina, pno; Siberian Symphony Orch.; Dmitry Vasiliev, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC0616

As soon as I read the opening paragraph of the liner, notes, I realized that I already liked Steve Elcock immensely:

Steve Elcock, now in his mid-sixties, has been known to introduce himself to concert audiences by telling them that he has never entered any competitions, has attracted no commissions and did not study with anybody. He did indeed grow up outside the musical mainstream. His website1 offers ‘A few words about me’: ‘I am a self-taught composer of classical music. I was born in Chesterfield, England, in 1957, and moved to France in 1981, where I have lived ever since’. He might have added that his only formal musical qualification is an A-Level in music, and that he had violin lessons when young, but that doesn’t appear to be important to him. Indeed, self-deprecation comes naturally to this modest and down-to-earth figure, but the tendency to define himself by what he is not may be partly the product of decades toiling in obscurity, away from the compositional ratrace and arts industry, beyond his native shores, fitting his creative life around a busy professional commitment working in language services for businesses. Elcock was already 56 when, in 2013, he sent some scores and sound-files to Martin Anderson at Toccata Classics, acting on the friendly recommendation of his fellow composer Robin Walker, and the process of his discovery began. He had long since made the tacit assumption that nobody would be interested in his music.

And what of the pieces? By the company’s own description, the Sixth Symphony moves from grief to outrage to a triumphant conclusion, the one-movement (but seven-part) Seventh was based on the words of a song he heard in a dream, and Manic Dancing—“a piano concerto in all but name”—sounds “buoyant and good-natured, like Martinů on speed.”

Elcock’s style is not easy to define. Modern in harmony, rhythm and melodic lines, yes, but it seems to move along as if gliding on a slick surface…water or ice, take your pick. Despite occasional rhythmic devices to ground the listener, the music has a flow similar to the “free pulsative” style of Leif Segerstam; but being British, Elcock has a surprisingly lyrical streak that runs through his music, always seeming to bring it back to some semblance of tonality and melodies that can be followed by the listener while only occasionally being “tuneful” in the conventional sense. He thus occupies an outlier position in terms of style in addition to his pride (which I heartily endorse) of being an outsider of the classical academic community.

Elcock’s Seventh Symphony, which leads off this CD, is a typically strange and exhilarating roller coaster ride of feelings, emotions, and musical styles. There is clearly a kinship to the music of other modern British composers of the past half-century such as Robert Simpson, but whereas many of these other composers wanted above all to write music that fit into the trends of their time, Elcock writes music that just pleases himself and finds expression in its own personal way. Thus parts of the Seventh Symphony, as already noted, are melodic and pleasing, other parts of it are violent and explosive. I’m guessing that Elcock writes music to express his inner feelings and somehow finds a way to do so, but the astonishing thing for a man who had very little formal training in music, his scores are not merely complex but masterly in every way including orchestration. I’ve heard many an American academic composer who just barely reaches the bottom of Elcock’s heights of fancy; he may well be the best self-taught British-born composer since Kaikhosru Sorabji…except that Elcock doesn’t go on for three to eight hours at a time.

Ironically, this recording, like so many made in recent years by small classical labels around the globe, uses an Eastern European orchestra, in this case the Siberian Symphony. With all the flak recently over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the mere mention of anything Russian is sure to raise the hackles of the self-righteous, but somehow I doubt that most of these musicians had anything to do with said invasion and probably aren’t in favor of it, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy their first-rate playing. (Who knows? Maybe these were musicians that Putin banished from Moscow to Siberia because they weren’t on his political favors list!)

The power and edginess in the symphony grows as we move from section to section; by the time we’ve reached the “Agitato” portion, the tympani are banging away beneath screaming strings and excitable brass of all sorts (not just the trumpets and trombones, but also the horns), and this vibe continues into the “Adagio.” Somewhere in the heart of modest, gentle Steve Elcock is a streak of violence and menace; thankfully, he seems to be able to purge those demons in his music. The symphony ends with quiet but very sad, elegiac music.

As promised, Manic Dancing is a “fun” piece, yet the opening is far more rhythmically complex than one might expect; if someone tried to dance to these rhythms, they might trip on their own feet. Despite the rapid tempi, the music is not any more conventionally melodic than the Seventh Symphony, and thus sounds very, very classical and not really much like dance music in the conventional sense of the term. Not so much, I think, “manic dancing” as asymmetrical, cross-legged attempts to dance, but as a concert piece it’s clearly interesting and, in its own way, entertaining. There is a quite slow middle movement in which only a bit of “dancing” goes on. The last movement bears a resemblance to George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.

The “Tyrants” Symphony opens with a few cellos playing a sort of lament over muted tympani before moving on to other sections of the orchestra, all playing rather sparsely. By “Letter C, Bar 65” we’ve moved from despair to lyricism, although still with an undercurrent of menace. Later on in this section, muted trumpets bark out some staccato notes as a section before moving into a strange melody played by the winds over a “walking” bass line. In the middle of this section is a dolorous melody played by the oboe that sounds surprisingly Russian in character. Towards the end of this section, the music explodes, evidently representing tyrants sending their minions in to stomp on people they don’t particularly like.

The second movement, though marked “Allegro,” begins with the basses playing a menacing motif before moving into a more lyrical but equally menacing theme. Although long, the movement has good structure and holds together very well. Later on, after a brass explosion, the basses settle into playing a repeated ground bass figure as strings and brasses play contrasting, menacing figures above it. Unlike the Seventh Symphony, which had a rather protracted, somewhat overlong finale, the end of the Sixth is tighter and more finite.

Elcock is clearly an interesting composer who has his own voice and some very interesting things to say. Highly recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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