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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

CD Review/Interview: Daniel Elms with Manchester Collective & Jubilee Quartet - Islandia (New Amsterdam NWAM114)


(By A.J. Dehany)

An urgent evocation of the primal spirit of islands suffuses the dramatic textures of composer, arranger and guitarist Daniel Elms' debut album Islandia. Recorded at Abbey Road with chamber orchestra, electric guitar and synths, and a concluding track recorded live at Hull Minster, the five pieces assert the ineffable universalities of post-genre music, using elements drawn from classical, jazz, electronic and world music.

Daniel Elms’ influences include the sharp-edged and “glassy” orchestral palette of American composer Jacob Druckman, and the parallelism and geometric constructs of Béla Bartók, and the album uses material from folk songs and even techniques inspired by serialism. In his approach to crafting music, he cites Debussy’s Jeux as a formative influence; it’s important to him, that melody, harmony and instrumentation be conceived simultaneously as inseparable conceptions. “Instrumental and timbral choice,” he says, “have always been an intrinsic part of my writing - even a line sketched on the piano will be marked with its suggested instrumentation and timbral character. There’s so much “emotional” content conveyed by instrument and timbre - they are incredibly deep compositional tools, not just ones of arrangement.”

Born in Hull of what he calls a “seafaring family” he left to study composition at the Royal College of Music but later returned to the inspirations of Yorkshire and the coastal northeast of England. Closing track Bethia was first performed in 2017 as part of Hull’s UK City of Culture. The album fell into shape as a loosely sea-themed song cycle or suite without too much conscious prodding, he says. “I hadn’t set out to make something so personal - a retrospective if you like. But as I began to sketch the material while locked away on the coast, the waves and storms that rolled in sparked something. Progressively everything I wrote lived or died by its ability or failure to evoke something of the sea.”

The title track Islandia is a wide-ranging passage through episodes of unsettling atonality and tense suspended harmony, then driving rhythms for strings, horn and synths. It has an original approach to tempo, which fluctuates symmetrically over the ten-minute piece. You feel physically drawn along on a voyage through the stormy currents and profondeurs of archetypal universal aspects of being. Islandia is inspired by the Utopia novel of the same name by Austin Tappan Wright. Daniel Elms says his music isn’t Utopian in itself but does invest in a strong sense of place and places, both from direct experience and from his fascination with less familiar forms of music.

Islandia uses themes from the Pacific island song Meke Iwau or “Club Dance”. In The Old Declarn much of the material is derived from one particular folk song of the same name, which he found in a book of Appalachian folk songs during a month-long residency at the former home of Imogen Holst. The book contained twelve regional variations of the song, which he applies musically in spare haunting writing for piano.

Soft Machines evokes eerie harmonic realms. It is composed using a short note series that cycles round with declining bar lengths, phasing and interacting with itself in a complex
unpredictable way. Spiky electric guitar and trumpet break across an immersive orchestral texture. Christian Barraclough’s trumpet is Harmon muted with tape delay whose decay time changes over the piece creating uneasy undulations of rhythmic sense.

North Sea Quartet and Bethia steer us into deep atmospheric evocations of lost maritime pasts. Bethia is the name of a ship that was built in Blaydes Shipyard, Hull, though it is more commonly known by its later name HMS Bounty (the very same vessel from “Mutiny on the Bounty”) after its purchase by the Navy. This atmospheric live recording draws to a close the album’s ancient sense clashing with the modern as it breaks into an insistent electronic beat. The vocals and lyrics derived from traditional sea shanties about the North Sea and Northern ports. “Northern sky rose,/ Blood red, blood-red rose/ East and West,/ You who sail ‘cross the sea,/ Sailor bold.”

Daniel Elms is presenting the album live for the first time on tour with an ensemble of nine musicians drawn from his regular collaborators the Jubilee Quartet and the Manchester Ensemble, who are presenting their extraordinary and unmissable take on Paradise Lost. They are in the vanguard of a pleasing progressive tendency (shared by organisations such as nonclassical) to demystify works from the classical canon and contemporary experimental tendencies. It’s an exciting moment for complex creative music.

A.J. Dehany
The writer is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Islandia is released 21 June on New Amsterdam on vinyl, CD and download.

Album tour with Manchester Collective
Tuesday 18th June, 20.00: The CLF Arts Cafe, London
Friday 21st June, 20.00: Penny Red Arts, Hull
Saturday 22nd June 20.00: The White Hotel, Salford

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