Frank Denyer

Frank Denyer

Silenced Voices – Mode Records, Mode 198

Silenced Voices
Mode Records, Mode 198
The Barton Workshop; Elisabeth Smalt (viola);
Frank Denyer and James Fulkerson (musical directors)

Silenced Voices is the second Mode Records disc devoted to the work of English composer Frank Denyer. Like its predecessor, Faint Traces, Silenced Voices features the Barton Workshop, the Amsterdam-based group that Denyer co-founded in 1989. Joined on this new disc by a number of male and female vocalists and some additional instrumentalists, the Barton Workshop presents four recent, substantial works: Woman, Viola and Crow (2004) was composed for, and is performed by, Dutch violist Elisabeth Smalt, who is required not only to execute the most delicate and controlled sustained sounds on muted viola, but also vocalise, shake a set of rattles on her back and produce audible footsteps with special shoes; both Two Beacons (2005) and Tentative Thoughts, Silenced Voices (2002–3) are for ensembles of voices, various string instruments (including Indian sarangi and santur), percussion and offstage ‘presences’ (male and female vocal ensembles in the former, trumpet in the latter); Ghosts Again (2004–5) is for two sextets, one of homogenous and one of non-homogenous instrumentation.

The four works might be heard as a totality, as one long process; a process that is analogous to that of excavating for fragments of ancient pottery. Single sounds and short-lived sonic microcosms follow each other like a sequence of unearthed artefacts, each at once self-contained and possessed of multiple relationships: relationships with the fragment unearthed last, the fragment that might be unearthed next, all the fragments unearthed in the present excavation, and, ultimately, all the fragments ever unearthed. Sometimes fragments fit together across time to reveal an exquisite tableau, such as the short instances of viola harmonics in Woman, Viola and Crow. Sometimes three or four similar shards of brightly painted porcelain are discovered over several minutes, as in the chorale-like vocal segments that leap out of the texture in Tentative Thoughts, Silenced Voices or the strangely unsettling crow calls that punctuate Woman, Viola and Crow. When one hears the large ‘off-stage’ male and female vocal ensembles in Two Beacons or the ‘off-stage’ trumpet in Tentative Thoughts, Silenced Voices, or the frail exhalations of breath in Ghosts Again, it’s like coming across an object you recognise from your childhood buried in the topsoil – it’s faded, chipped perhaps, but recognisable and charged with memories.

Rich with a multiplicity of counterpoints, the music suggests a multitude of associations – within the music, beyond it and even within the personal life of the listener, as Bob Gilmore suggests in his insightful liner notes. I can only imagine what dimensions would be added to this music in live performance, where the theatre of performance would act in addition to the sounds.

This music calls for immersion, I feel, the way David Lynch’s latest film, Inland Empire, calls for immersion. Or the music of late-period Morton Feldman. Although Denyer is quoted in the liner notes as preferring that listeners don’t raise the volume when listening to the CD, I still felt the best way to immerse myself in this disc was to turn the volume way up and put my head between the speakers. 

Regardless of your volume preferences, though, this disc’s sublimely sensitive performances and subtle production will offer a highly concentrated experience.
garrett sholdice

Published on 1 April 2009

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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