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Ed HUGHES (b. 1968)
Time, Space and Change
Cuckmere: A Portrait (2016-18) [30:31]
Media Vita, for piano trio (1991) [10:34]
Sinfonia (2018) [30:23]
New Music Players Piano Trio
Orchestra of Sound and Light/Ed Hughes
New Music Players/Nicholas Smith
rec. 2018, Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, University of Sussex; The Warehouse, Theed Street, London
MÉTIER MSV28597 [71:35]

“His ability to adapt, recreate and bend this music to his own voice is remarkable”. Thus did my colleague John France conclude his review of this enchanting disc. The phrase “his own voice” resonates most emphatically with me. In the mid-1990s I recall hearing Hughes’ Orchid sequence and a fascinating piece called Lanterns and clocking his music as elaborate and strange but incontravertibly English. In recent years he has established himself as a composer of soundtracks, frequently for vintage silent shorts and most lately to accompany topographically-inspired films made especially for the Brighton Festival. I reviewed his most recent release on Métier, Symphonic Visions, a double DVD which contained examples of both (with the relevant films) – most impressive was the mesmerising Brighton- Symphony of a City. It is obvious that Hughes has refined his methods in the quarter century since I first encountered his music, but his voice remains defiantly identifiable – and it persists here throughout two big, recent works which bookend a brief piano trio composed at a point when Hughes had barely graduated.

Cuckmere: A Portrait is another Sussex soundtrack – a collaboration with Cesca Eaton, a film-maker most associated with some of the more popular BBC music series and documentaries to have emerged in recent years. While the new issue doesn’t include the film, it is available via this link, and Hughes’ appealing score is certainly best appreciated through headphones. Eaton’s film is effectively a chronological travelogue which traces the Cuckmere from Autumn to Summer from its source near Heathfield in East Sussex to the spot where it flows into the English Channel at Cuckmere Haven, halfway between Seaford and the white cliffs at Seven Sisters. The river is renowned for the number of its meanders and the sharpness of their twists and turns, and the film consequently benefits from the frequent aerial shots which readily communicate the strangeness of its form against the glorious backdrop of the Sussex countryside. Hughes again employs his ‘house’ ensemble, the Orchestra of Sound and Light, here consisting of 18 players (single winds, trumpet, piano percussion and strings). If Brighton-Symphony of a City was as much a musical depiction of human activity within the context of a bustling resort, Cuckmere is exclusively a portrait of nature. In its half-hour span Hughes’ seems fully immersed in the essence of the river, although his score is astoundingly fresh and utterly devoid of cliché. One often senses the spirit of the barcarolle in the gently lapping pulses and shapes which hint at arpeggiation, but his resourceful use of the modest ensemble encapsulates a sonic landscape in constant flux, albeit one that’s leisurely and subtle. It is the mark of a true collaboration when image is so perfectly married to music that one becomes almost unimaginable without the other, and that is certainly the case here, just as it was with the Brighton piece. Having said that, hearing the score as pure music without the images on the disc enables the listener to focus more closely on Hughes’ most identifiable compositional fingerprints; an ear so sensitive to timbre that a modest ensemble is sufficient for him conjure a canvas vibrant in colour and texture, an instinctive ability to apply rhythm which is never allowed to dominate or overwhelm, and in this case a conception of ‘flow’ which embodies the barely perceptible metamorphosis of the landscape as the seasons change, even allowing for the brief interludes which demarcate them. Cuckmere: A Portrait does exactly what it says on the tin; it’s warmly communicative and approachable, yet unusual – and it encapsulates Hughes’ readily recognisable stylistic characteristics most elegantly.

The couplings are tougher propositions, but clearly the products of the same composer. Media Vita was one of Hughes’ earliest performed works and was inspired by John Sheppard’s renowned half-hour motet, although this is far from obvious. The listener is plunged in medias res with piano figures already insinuating themselves around and between a knotty violin line and latterly a growling cello. Media Vita is challenging but rewarding - the pianist bears much of its weight. Elusive melodic Ideas cascade and tumble atop one another – there is something unexpectedly Ivesian here, stark cello chords and passionate high flung violin lines become entangled while the pianist strives to rhapsodise his way through. A brief duet for the strings at 6:20 is strikingly rich and hints at the harmonic facilities of Sheppard’s source work. But the logic of Hughes’ piece is immediately restored when the piano returns. Media Vita ends as it began, in the middle of something the listener has perhaps happened upon uninvited.

Sinfonia is another big, recent piece, although not a ‘symphony’ according to one’s modern, formal preconceptions of the word. It’s scored for a similar-sized ensemble to that required for the Cuckmere work, and incorporates six movements; the first five of these derive directly from specific historical English sources. Thus Agincourt is a polyrhythmic, rather celebratory twist on the eponymous carol and Stella Celi Extirpavit a brief re-imagining of John Cooke’s early 15th century motet whose text was apparently ubiquitous at the time of the plague. In this movement a lucid dance pulse is blended with and overlaid by yet more (rather inebriated) polyrhythms, but the ideas emerging from these collisions are richly melodic and indubitably atmospheric in terms of evoking a distant past. These two movements neatly illustrate Hughes’ concept –the work is a symphony in the sense of (quoting the composer’s note) “the word’s connotation of …’concord of sound’…a suite of short movements which are connected…to imply a journey through time and personal understanding of what it means to compose out of the historical.” The Sinfonia is certainly a more challenging prospect for the listener- from time to time one is reminded of Peter Maxwell Davies’ absorption of Medieval or early Renaissance influences; in the third, fourth and fifth movements Hughes similarly plays around with Dunstaple’s Veni sancte spiritus, TaIlis’s In ieiunio et fletu and Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, while the final movement is a manipulation of a generic form (the In Nomine) rather than a specific piece which jumps forward four centuries and adopts materials drawn from the 1930s London Sound Survey, including a lavender seller’s street cry, a childrens’ game and even traffic noise. All of this adds up to an extended work which is unapologetically tough, but never anything less than lucid and rewarding for the listener.

The performances of all these pieces are superb. As one might imagine, they are all unforgiving for the performers in terms of their exposed solo lines – there are certainly no hiding places but the personnel of both the Orchestra of Sound and Light and the New Music Players (both involving many performers whose names will be extremely familiar to lovers of British new music) take the abundant challenges Hughes has presented in their stride. Métier’s sound is first-rate and perfectly tailored to the specific needs of Hughes’ singular pieces. Documentation is detailed and helpful. To “try before you buy “as it were, I encourage every reader to sample the Cuckmere work (and Cesca Eaton’s beguiling visuals) via the link provided above.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: John France



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