Luca Francesconi: Etymo; Da Capo; A fuoco; Animus

IRCAM; Ensemble Intercontemporain; Susanna Mälkki (KAIROS 0012712KAI)

8 July 2008 4.5 stars

FrancesconiThis CD, featuring the music of Italian-born composer Luca Francesconi, is the latest release from the Vienna-based Kairos label, and ably keeps up their record of presenting us with some of the more interesting work occurring in contemporary composition.

Having already issued many releases of music by important composers currently active but rarely performed in this country (although Francesconi's music did feature recently in the 2007-8 'Music of Today' series in London), there is much to be thankful for in the label's consistently high quality of output. This particular release represents a new venture between Kairos, IRCAM and Ensemble Intercontemporain, entitled 'Sirènes', which is to focus on the latest work in the combination of acoustic and electronic sonority.

On the basis of this Francesconi CD, which contains two such pieces as well as two acoustic pieces, we should look forward to fruitful products from the union. It is certainly welcome to see that an adventurous outlook still holds in the ethos of musical composition, in an age when there is an all-too-easily assumed attitude that everything has already been done and that the available resources of compositional material have already been exhausted. The first and last pieces on this disc easily dissuade from this view, and suggest a limitless potential for exploration in the admixture of traditional means with current technologies.

Etymo, which opens the disc, also lends to the release its name. In the liner notes the work is described as one thematising and enacting the origins of language and meaning in the raw materials of articulated sound. This enactment takes place through a dramatic work that couples soprano voice (with electronic manipulation) and ensemble. Francesconi utilises as textual material selected fragments from Baudelaire's Le Voyage – the tale of a journey; perhaps even the tale of journey itself, in its relation both to exploration and to telling, to the province of the composer/poet. We are pointed towards what occurs in the work, in the relation of its being uncovered: the poet's relating his words to us in telling a tale – what is uncovered by what gets called, upon its emergence, music

After a slow, spatial opening, the ensemble burst into that opened space with virtuosic urgency. In hieratic aspect the soprano voice chimes in and continually attempts to disclose its opening line, stuttering upon and getting garbled within its own material, its own vocality. This is a simulation of the pre-semantic stage of language – the words are eventually stated – 'Dites, qu'avez-vous vu?' (Tell us, what did you see?) – the ensemble opening out to allow the sharp interjection. The work continues into a slow and ambient section, featuring throughout a striking meld between electronics, voice and ensemble, each blending into the other in post-spectral manner. The entire work is apparently modelled on the tripartite phrase from Baudelaire stated above, which also represents a structure of phonetics-semantics-poetics that Francesconi deems to signify the genealogy of language. The overall effect is impressive as dramatic vocal music goes, its programme working in a manner more suggestive than straightforwardly representative, more associative than straightforwardly semantic: the non-specificity of a narrative perhaps leads the listener into the piece in a way that doesn't stipulate their course once therein.

The middle two pieces on the disc, Da Capo for ensemble and A fuoco for guitar and ensemble, are similarly virtuosic to the first, although less interesting, perhaps through their absence of electronics. The last work on the disc however, Animus, is another standout. A solo for trombone and electronics, it is someway analogous to Etymo in theme, this time dramatising that relation between musician and instrument that is necessary for the work's emergence as a musical composition. It seeks to generate its own material and subject, a subject that is continuously elaborated and unfurled as the piece progresses. The opening features the sound of the performer's breath, electronically processed, issuing forth boldly and resonating loudly throughout the instrument in a herald and presaging of what is to come. It is directly followed by a section of guttural grunts and mumbles, as the performer is slowly drawn towards that marriage with the instrument that will result in pitch and harmony.

That union, once achieved, is as grand in statement as we might feel appropriate to such a self-reflective dramatisation of sound by sound itself – especially on a brass instrument. The expanses that the trombone finds to explore are varied and brilliant, creating polyphonies with sonic residues, and describing menacing crowns of harmony. The interplay of electronics with their acoustic source material in this work is achieved to a very high level: in listening to the composition, much terrain must certainly appear to await future exploration in the field. Benny Sluchin, who previously recorded Berio's Sequenza V for Deutsche Grammophon (in their edition of the Sequenzas featuring the soloists of Ensemble Intercontemporain), is the perfect performer for this expansive performance material, which material takes up where Berio left off but from a further technological standpoint. The electronics capture and explode the material nuances endemic to the trombone's manipulation by the human breath; the resulting sound, become digital, is subject to its own extended manipulations, throwing us in diverse aspects according with its course.

The performances and the quality of the recording on this CD throughout are matchless, the instruments all sounding as crisp and clearly presented as would be expected from a recording issued from IRCAM. The electronics are startlingly captured and conveyed – the wide range of utterances, tones and gestures on the trombone in Animus, for example, presented in their vivid range, from studied murkiness to shimmering brilliance.

By Liam Cagney