The Breadth of Contemporary Flute
Lina Andonovska’s debut A Way a Lone a Last has been much-anticipated: she has been an important figure in contemporary music for some time now and has built a reputation as a flute-player who is equally at home in contemporary jazz and classical music. She has been especially prominent in Ireland where she has played with groups such as Crash Ensemble, and performed works by Irish composers such as Ann Cleare, Linda Buckley, Anna Murray and Michael Gallen. In this album, released on Diatribe records at New Music Dublin in February, she gives world-premiere recordings of five new works by Irish composers.
A Way a Lone a Last opens with Barry O’Halpin’s Hox. This skittering, intimate piece is a great statement of purpose: it features Matthew Jacobson, the other half of her improvising duo SlapBang, on percussion, and is written with wonderful sensitivity to Andonovska’s and Jacobson’s strengths. (Presumably the idiomaticity is partly a function of O’Halpin having trust enough in the performers enough to leave them space to improvise.) Particularly exciting was Andonovska’s use of percussive effects, which, combined with Jacobson’s delicate playing, gave the two instruments a compelling timbral unity when they could easily have failed to blend.
Nick Roth has two pieces on this record. His first is the continuation of the Finnegans Wake quotation that is the album’s title: A Loved a Long. This piece, according to Roth’s comments in the sleeve notes, is an interpretation of the last few hundred words of the Wake. It seems to be a fairly direct musical depiction – certainly, the occasional fragments of text that Andonovska speaks are given in the order of the text – but beyond this, I can’t say I hear the connection. Of course, the Wake is such a polysemous text that it means something different to everyone, and perhaps Roth has a legitimate interpretation of the text that is just inaccessible to me; but still, there were a few moments where I found his interpretations very strange. For instance, one of the words Andonovska speaks is ‘whisht’, but her vocalisation is entirely ‘whoosh!’ – forceful and fast – and not at all the bid to silence that is also a meaning of the word. Or again, she enunciated (even if at a whisper) the final ‘the’, but Joyce meant this word as a ‘nothing’ word, breathed out as ALP dissolves into the ocean (or the dawn). These are weaknesses of interpretation, to be sure, but they are literary more than musical weaknesses.
Roth’s second piece, Bátá, which closes the album, is stronger than his first. Jacobson, Roth’s bandmate in the excellent free-jazz quartet ReDiViDeR, returns, and Bátá is a fun dance between Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘fugue’ and jungle music. It alternates moments of colourful stillness (fragments of Barthes floating through the electronics-assisted texture now and then) and high-tension breakbeats. Unfortunately, however, the piece seems to not quite know what it wants to be: it alternates between a more cerebral art-music aesthetic and a Junglist massive one, but the two aspects are not in balance; the contemplative dominates, and the jungle, quoted in fragments that never build up the momentum that’s so integral to the style, is relegated till it sounds like it’s on display behind glass in a museum. That is to say, it makes somatic demands of the listener that the other aspects of the music blocks. In being blocked in this way, it seems as if it is being mocked, which I suspect was not Roth’s intention. If this piece doesn’t quite come together, though, it should be remembered how rare it ever is for dance music and art music to be integrated well; given this, Bátá is surprisingly successful. What success it has is surely due to Roth’s, Andonovska’s, and Jacobson’s long history of working together on a path that straddles these almost opposed traditions.
Donnacha Dennehy’s Bridget is a more successful attempt to take inspiration from beyond music. Bridget is, in Dennehy’s words from the album’s sleeve notes, ‘inspired by the dazzling, dizzy, perceptually playful paintings’ of Bridget Riley, the British op-art painter. He singles out her Loss (1964), which is a pure expression of the way that she often creates movement and rhythm through simple shapes (in this case, black circles on a white background) that repeat but with regular distortions. The result is something that is somehow both unsettlingly stretched and comfortably legible. Bridget shares these contrasts, and works extremely well both on its own two feet – it is a mature, rich, free minimalism, with a leggiero semiquaver momentum that is never oppressive or distracting – and as an interpretation of, or accompaniment to, Riley’s work.
Judith Ring’s A Breath of Fresh Air, by contrast, is an introverted, mysterious and upsetting work. It opens with angry huffs, and ends with long, open dissonances between vocalised and played notes. Indeed, the piece seems to me a duet between the flute, on the one hand, and Andonovska’s breath or voice, on the other; and the tension between these is something like the tension between an anger and pain that is attempted to be sublimated into music, and how that sublimation can fail, leaving something raw and painful.
Although the music is mostly strong, A Way a Lone a Last is, as an album, a bit of a miscellany: the five pieces are very different, and the album doesn’t amount to anything greater than the sum of its parts: it doesn’t have any overarching narrative or coherence. This, however, is a small criticism. What certainly does unify the album are Andonovska’s (and Jacobson’s) incredible performances. Not once does she nod, even in performing music of great difficulty demanding a huge breadth of competence: in extended techniques, free-jazz improvisation, classically beautiful tone, working with electronics – and often in rapid succession. From this point of view, the album is a tour de force, and well worth a serious listen.
To purchase A Way A Lone A Last, visit https://shop.diatribe.ie/album/a-way-a-lone-a-last. Lina Andonovska will perform as part of Music Network’s online series The Butterfly Sessions on 1 May.
Published on 9 April 2020
James Camien McGuiggan holds a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. Prior to this, he studied music in Maynooth University. He is currently an independent scholar, with interests in the philosophy of music and R. G. Collingwood.