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Music Review

Jonathan Sage - Counterpoint

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Label: Ergodos

Year: 2013

Duration: 29 minutes

1 of 1 Eleven separate clarinet lines in an endeavour that presumably tested hard the confines of one instrument.
Eleven separate clarinet lines in an endeavour that presumably tested hard the confines of one instrument.

It is quite something that an eleven-minute piece of music that opens with fast-pulsing beats should yet have folded into it a wistful, plaintive counterpoint. Like different mood angels dancing on a pin, it is mark of Steve Reich’s genius that he could envelop both contrasting tones in those brief introductory few bars of his New York Counterpoint.

Clarinetist Jonathan Sage’s masterful interpretation suitably highlights that lyrical side in the opening bars, before proceeding merrily on through the repetitive, music-box perkiness of the work, which swells and diminishes polyphonically throughout.

It’s like music for marching toy soldiers, or city pedestrians walking in step, if such were possible. There is urban steeliness and clamour, and the piece’s stern synchronicity seems to replicate the unceasing stop-go motions of New York traffic. Intimate it mostly isn't.

Sage, who is based in the original of the (city) species - York itself, in England - is a soloist, orchestral and chamber musician. On this new record, he employs no less than eleven separate clarinet lines in an endeavour that presumably tested hard the confines of one instrument.

Counterpoint, released on the Irish Ergodos label, was recorded at the Universities of York and Huddersfield between September 2009 and December 2012. Aside from the Reich piece, it also features an extract from Johann Sebastian Bach’s violin partitas in an arrangement for solo clarinet by Irish composer Benedict Schlepper-Connolly.

Schlepper-Connolly’s own work, Another Country concludes the record. At just over 13 minutes, it slips through the gears of various moods and colours, from an almost triumphant, festive note to rueful world-weariness at the close.

Also available from Ergodos (download only) is Linda Buckely’s Immersia, a 16-minute EP of ambient electronica. In three parts, its first movement in particular is glacially majestic, played on what sounds like a flanged synthesiser or mellotron. There are echoes of the band Tangerine Dream on this fascinating work by the Cork-born composer.

The continuous flow is absorbing and you can’t wait to hear what it will bring you to, but it’s not the arrival that matters, it is the journey. Immersia, part one, is essentially one chord, with the player’s hand stretching for additional notes, effects and accents, sounds that are almost like train whistles. Did I imagine that or did I actually hear it, you find yourself asking at one point about what sounds like a phone ringing in the middle of the river of sound?

In part two, Buckley breaks the majestic sweep of part one into fragmented notes, with echoes of Massive Attack’s 100th Window album. Part three seems to break it even further down, to finish in a slow fumble of organ notes, the inscrutable drama of the piece gone, the train exhausted as it enters the final station. Linda Buckley was RTÉ Lyric fm’s composer-in-residence from 2011-2012.

Paddy Kehoe

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