Edward Cowie’s “Streams and Particles”


WAP 2022COWIE: Particle Partita / Peter Sheppard Skærved, Mihailo Trandafilovski, vln / 8 Basho Meditations / Miyahi Duo: Hugh Millington, Saki Kato, gtr / Streams and Variations / Kato, gtr / Kandinsky / Spectrum Guitar Qrt / Kandinsky’s Oboe / Christopher Redgate, ob / Métier MSV 28612

British composer Edward Cowie, most famous for writing music based on the natural world and specifically on birds, presents here an album with a different slant. Cowie explains this in the liner notes:

This album has several points of focus ranging through Particle Physics, the meditations of a classical Japanese mystic and poet, the flow and flux of a lovely stream in Wiltshire, England, and the painting and writings of one of the founders of ‘Abstraction’ in Fine Arts: Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky.

On first thought, sub-atomic particles might be considered far too distant from an English stream let alone the paintings and thinking of the Russian-born painter, Kandinsky. And yet even the Haiku of Basho, which form the basis for the eight tiny movements of Basho Meditations, are ‘atomic’ in form and scale. All forms of matter and all matter of forms are subject to behaviours of ‘mass’ in time and space. The same can be said of the Lines, Points and Planes of Kandinsky’s oeuvre. Look at the read-outs from the great Particle Accelerator at CERN, and you see something remarkably like a Kandinsky work.

Music ought, of course, speak for itself. Many would argue that giving a work some kind of descriptive name might influence the way in which someone listens to the music. I think it was the inherent severance of any subjective personal interpretation that programme-titles would suggest that influenced Kandinsky in the naming of a great deal of his most important paintings as compositions. But in fact my use of titles is to try to at least give a listener some terms of reference for the music.

So there!

Probably due to the more objective source of his inspiration, this is some of Cowie’s most abstract and, to my mind, most interesting music. Representing, in its own way, “atoms and parts of atoms,” the Particle Partita is not only atonal but consists of little bits of music, gestures more than themes, juxtaposed throughout each of its eight movements, yet Cowie is such a good composer that he even makes this very fragmented music sound coherent by making these little musical gestures relate to one another. I will not claim that they make a smooth structure—that would be going too far—but even so, they somehow cohere to each other in the listener’s mind. It’s really a very clever piece, and violinists Skærved and Trandafilovski play them with great energy and emotional commitment, thus lifting the music from the realm of the purely abstract and giving it human feeling. And even in this piece, a surprising amount of the music sounds the way Kandinsky’s drawings and paintings look.

2nd stage sketch, Part 1, Particle Partita

Second stage sketch, Part 1, “Particle Partita” (from the CD booklet)

I was even impressed—perhaps more impressed—by the Basho Meditations, simply because Cowie here writes powerful, edgy music for classical guitars. My readers know how opposed I am to the soft-grained guitar style of most classical and jazz guitarists, who play their instruments so delicately that it sounds as if they’re afraid the strings might break if they are plucked too loudly.  Hugh Millington and Saki Kato, our duo in this performance, have no such qualms. They understand what Cowie wanted from the music and they deliver an exciting, somewhat edgy performance. In this work, Cowie is not quite as abstract as in the Particle Partita, but he still wrote this music in a similar but not identical style. One thing he does not mention in the liner notes is whether or not he, like Kandinsky, “sees” music as colors, yet he manages to bring the instrumental colors out of the instruments he writes for. Meditation No. 5 is particularly rich in its use of chords, the rhythmic edginess of the music resembling flamenco music despite its less consonant tonality. In No. 6, he has the guitarists slither over their strings with their fingers, like violinists, producing a particularly striking sound. If the reader gets the impression that this music is all flash and effects with little substance, however, that would be the wrong way to interpret it. This music is, like the Particle Partita, well constructed and coherent.

Kato, playing solo, also does an excellent job on Streams and Variations which, though including several of the same elements as the preceding works, is somewhat more lyrical and less consistently fragmented. There are several running lines in this music which alternate with the short phrases and gestures. I could well imagine the excellent American guitarist David Starobin playing this music…he’s yet another classical guitarist who isn’t afraid to take chances.

The Kandinsky pieces combine the abstract with the lyrical, alternating short, stabbing notes or chords with more sustained figures, thus simulating the lines in a Kandinsky painting or drawing. This is really interesting music for the listener to follow as it moves along in its odd pace. Few composers could handle this sort of thing with the grace and intelligence of Cowie; it is really unique music, here often using fast chromatic passages and occasional “slithering” figures in a somewhat microtonal fashion.  The third of the guitar pieces, “Planes,” has the most sustained music.

I was particularly interested to hear how Cowie would handle similar music for the oboe, an instrument that can only play one note at a time. You might say that it’s “bare bones Kandinsky.” With no sustain power for the soloist to “bind” phrases as a guitar would do via its ability to reverberate its tones, this is almost an exercise in musical pointillism. Occasionally, the performer hums a note or two; in No. 3, “Planes,” he also makes some soft sounds that resemble words but, if they are, are not in English.

What I particularly admire about Cowie is that, as this record proves, he is not a “one style” composer. He can think outside the box and produce a varied oeuvre of works that complement each other without all sounding alike. Very highly recommended!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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