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Mark ANDRE (b. 1964)
hij 1 for orchestra (2008/10) [22:22]
hij 2 for vocal ensemble and electronics (2010/12) [36:48]
WDR Sinfonieorchester/Mariano Chiacchiarini
SWR Vokalensemble, SWR Experimentalstudio/Marcus Creed
rec. 2013/15, Cologne Philharmonie; Basilika, Weingarten
WERGO WER73792 [59:22]

Mark Andre was born in Paris and studied at the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, but after further studies in Stuttgart with Helmut Lachenmann he settled in Germany, and is now known for performances at the Donaueschingen Festival and other European nurseries for the avant-garde, while being less well known in English speaking countries.

Both of the hij pieces follow Andre’s introspective idiom, the booklet telling us that “this music whispers its way into our consciousness, fragilely and almost imperceptibly.” The word ‘hij’ has multiple meanings, from a casual greeting to something symbolising the words “Hilfe Jesu” (Help, Jesus), “’a cry to the Lord for help’, according to the composer. But Mark Andre’s ‘cry’ is always on the verge of falling silent, disappearing, becoming inaudible, abandoning familiar spaces and their acoustical qualities…”

The orchestral hij 1 begins with the slightest of sounds, and will have you checking if your speakers are switched on. Swishing, breath sounds and fidgety valves and keys gradually consolidate into gentle ritual thumps which eventually become the thrumming of open strings. It’s 6:41 before we get some actual notes, but the build-up of tension is heightened further with block-like quasi-unison notes and clusters, the piano acting as a scampering free-radical from time to time. Monumentality wins out, and the thumps from the opening return with greater substance, underpinned by open interval statements from the brass. This is by no means all whispering, but the subtle undercurrent of tension is held at the lowest dynamic level, and our ears are invited to search deep within layers to hear textures, patterns and atmospheres that have direction and intent within their seeming randomness. It may not be immediately apparent, but there is a good deal of contrapuntal technique going on in this score, as well as the benign alteration of instrumental sounds through the addition of aluminium foil in various forms. This is alienation or surrealism of a kind, but of the sort that, if you lean in to what’s going on, will reward your enquiring mind with all kinds of treats.

For 24 voices and live electronics, the opening of hij 2 will tickle your ASMR if you have a thing for soft whispering voices. As with hij 1, the core of the music crystalizes out of noise, the electronics relaying pre-recorded vocals as well as enhancing the live performance. Sustained tones emerge from the whispering and other sounds, and new worlds open out. The music takes on a static presence that reminds me a little of Morton Feldman, but this “shadow of a chorale” has its own identity, subsumed under noise once again, but not defeated. Texture, the mystery of barely heard statements and slowly shifting harmonies and dissonances give this piece both a timeless, almost medieval presence, while also brushing against the legacy of Ligeti. There are some gorgeous moments in which the voices are given a sustained echo by the electronics, the timbre of the singers turning amorphous while the chords they establish remain. As the effects become more evident, the echoes become like sounds made into piano strings, creating a sense of vastness that takes on its own character. Sine-wave like tones become members of the choir, and an extended fade-out takes on disturbing imagery that plucks at the carcass of what has gone before.

This is the kind of music that requires you to suspend your expectations of conventional musical development, or at the very least be prepared to have them stretched beyond normality. Once attuned, there is a great deal to discover here. You have to accept and acquire what’s on offer, switch off your cynical side and become transported. Both pieces of the hij diptych have their own individual qualities while growing from similar roots, but while quietness is a vital feature of their gestalt do not expect to be able to meditate peacefully in their presence. There is as much darkness as there is luminosity here, but once found, the strange beauty in these black mirrors will stay with you for a long time.

Dominy Clements

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