CD Reviews: Ian Wilson

CD Reviews: Ian Wilson

Tundra / Limb from Limb Records / LFL 001

Limb from Limb Records LFL 001

Ian Wilson is surely one of the busiest of Irish composers at the moment – and one of the most diverse and wide-ranging. This latest offering is the score for a multi-media dance performance that will be seen for the first time on 7th September at The Empty Space in Dublin’s Smock Alley as part of this year’s Fringe Festival.

An electro-acoustic work for trumpet and tape, Tundra follows, on disc at least, recordings of works for string quartet (reviewed in the July–August 2007 issue of JMI) and two expressive miniatures for alto saxophone and guitar (JMI, March–April 2007). It has already had its broadcast premiere on RTÉ lyric fm in a concert that included works by Seóirse Bodley and Raymond Deane, useful musical bookends to momentarily frame so omnivorous a composer as Wilson.

Inspired by the performer Anne Gilpin, Tundra takes two very different art works as its starting point: Wordsworth’s wistfully nostalgic poem ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, and pioneering American photographer Laura Gilpin’s compelling frontiers landscape from 1917, The Prairie, in which a lone female figure stands dwarfed by a vast cloud-filled sky as the sparse conjoined terrain of the Colorado landscape stretches flat and featureless to the horizon and out of the edges of the image. (Curiously, this is not the image featured on the CD sleeve.)

Featuring one-time RTÉ Musician of the Future and now BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra principal, Mark O’Keeffe, on trumpet, and engineered and co-produced by Jürgen Simpson, the project also announces a new label, Limb from Limb Records.

Tundra is structured in ten parts, including a prologue, ‘pre prologue’ and three short interludes. It begins in a protean wash of dirty-grey noise within which seems locked a blurred yet palpable pulse, cyclical but uneven – breath, perhaps, or a heartbeat, or the unmediated depositing over time, like erratic glacial moraines, of memories of now half-remembered places.

A flourish of double- (or triple-?) tonguing on the trumpet heralds a series of dark-hued interactions between it and Wilson’s formless but appropriately gritty and granulated soundscape that are terse, tentative and tremulous before gradually acquiring an equilibrium that enables them to come briefly, if always approximately, into focus.

The blanching effects of the interludes are followed by more animated interplay between electronics and, occasionally, multi-tracked trumpet, the first dialogue between the two hinting at the possibility of a common language. Throughout Tundra’s 42-minute playing time, the improvisational quality of the trumpet is provoked and paralleled by the coarsely delineated accompaniment, alluding, perhaps, to Wordsworth’s vicarious ‘gleams of half-extinguished thoughts’ and conjuring the elemental immensity of Gilpin’s photograph to intriguing effect.

A densely conceived work, then, that demands determined and sustained excavation by the listener, a requirement that might have been facilitated by the inclusion of commentary or notes.

Published on 1 September 2008

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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