Live Review: Deirdre Gribbin's Empire States

National Symphony Orchestra / William Eddins, conductor / National Concert Hall, Dublin / 31st January 2003

National Symphony Orchestra
William Eddins, conductor
National Concert Hall, Dublin
31st January 2003
Deirdre Gribbin – Empire States (2003, RTÉ Music Commission, World Premiere)
(Also performed: Milhaud’s Cello Concerto No. 1; Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major)

Empire States is Deirdre Gribbin’s new piece for orchestra. The piece begins in turmoil and over a twenty-minute span it exasperates itself like a ritual in rhetoric, an argument that knows it has no end but must go on until there is no space left to argue in.

The work is in one continuous movement, but appeared to me to fall into four sections as it moves linearly from the intense polyphony of the opening to the slow fadeout at the end. The language is dramatic, almost romantic, the opening section surges forth in a tangle of motivic play that is ametrical but flows around a strong semiquaver pulse. The harmonic language is similarly tight as motives rapidly weave around a referential pitch that is more felt than heard. The effect is like arriving in the development section of a furious symphony and although there are no themes or melodies, there is a distinct impression that these things were there before, ‘in the beginning’. This texture continues for a while as the motives permute and roll before the brass rears up and brings the music to a brief climax before the whole intensity level drops a little for the next section.

The problem of course with starting loud is that there is little room to get louder. On paper the climax should have worked, but the performance was marred by an electric bass that that was out of balance with the rest of the ensemble. Perhaps the limited rehearsal time meant that the amp levels were overlooked, but any bass part on the lower string boomed out and dwarfed the orchestra sound, undermining the dynamic shift.

The second section proceeded much in the manner of the first, but the voices and lines no longer fought for the foreground. Wind and percussion – tubular bells in particular – that had been part of the global sound mass, now had greater definition as they ebbed against the string dominated texture.

The piece dropped another level of intensity as the strings began to coalesce into slow chords. The harmony too became more solid through this section as zones of minor-modal harmony began to stand out. The ever-present sense of foreboding is maintained with a quiet but constantly rolling tom-tom; the subtlety of this was evident more in the effect when it ceased.

This new stillness marked a fourth section. The strings now moved homophonically, settling briefly on minor-modal chords, the other voices adding some colourful counterpoint or blending with the string chords. Where the first section was a mass of lines with a static harmony, now there was harmonic motion – though parallel rather than functional – with the almost static rhythm of a processional. The piece ended magically by slowing to nothing and slipping into silence. This caught me by surprise as at the time as the language had me expecting a traditional fast-slow-fast piece.

The sound is not all, perception of Empire States is conditioned from the start by the addition of a light-show of sorts: stage lighting of various colours and textures, ‘mood-lighting’ almost. Whether this was conceived of in dramatic or abstract terms is hard to tell but given the language of the music I assume the former. In any case it would have been more effective in a darkened or at least dimmed auditorium; in the normally lit NCH the effect was diminished almost to parody. Perhaps something more meaningful was intended but on the night it seemed tacked on, visual padding.

It was difficult to escape the feeling that we were missing a narrative of some sort, the music was tightly crafted but seemed to yearn for a direct meaning. Although the form of the music was abstract, almost geometric, the language was not and with the addition of lighting it came across like film music. Of course every composer’s language is very personal and goes through changes but this seemed like a step back from Tribe and other previous orchestral scores.

Published on 1 March 2003

Scott McLaughlin is an Irish composer.

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