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Scott ORDWAY (b. 1984) Girl in the Snow (2018)
Julia Dawson (mezzo-soprano)
Anna Naretto (piano)
rec. August 2019, Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Full texts included ACIS APL85820 [37:25]
Please indulge me this long introduction. Many readers will be aware of Clive Wearing (b 1938). For those who are not, he was musically active between the 1960s and 1980s as a choral conductor and trainer (often leading the London Sinfonietta Chorus) as well as being a musicologist renowned for the depth of his insights into the music of Orlando Lassus, many of whose works he edited and reintroduced. Wearing founded the Europa Singers whom he conducted in the 1977 premiere of John Tavener’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In July 1981 he was given overall responsibility for BBC Radio 3’s output throughout the wedding day of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer; in typical Wearing style the centrepiece of the day’s broadcasting was an elaborate reconstruction of music used at a Bavarian royal wedding in 1568, an undertaking which had a considerable impact on others’ subsequent attempts to recreate great ceremonial events from the past.
In 1985, Wearing’s career was tragically and abruptly curtailed when he contracted a destructive herpes simplex virus (initially in the form of an extreme head cold) which attacked his central nervous system and effectively wiped out his short-term memory, rendering it impossible for him either to create new memories or to make much sense of his surviving long-term recollections. It is both fascinating and poignant to note that Wearing’s procedural memory has proved resilient in the sense that he can still play the piano (and even conduct). Most devastating of all is his inability to maintain episodic memory, as illustrated by his lack of recall regarding his own children. The amnesia he continues to endure to this day is recognised as one of the most extreme and horrific cases ever recorded.
Many well-intentioned documentaries have been made about Clive Wearing – they are virtually all on YouTube and as a teacher of psychology they have proved indispensable to me over the years as a resource to encourage my students to grapple with the very nature, meaning and purpose of memory; perhaps more importantly they present a profoundly accessible opportunity to ponder upon what life is (and would be) like without it. In turn, they have inspired our attempts at acquiring a deeper comprehension of the effects of those evil twins, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
I mention all this as I find It is quite impossible to listen to Scott Ordway’s eloquent, concise and moving song cycle Girl in the Snow without thinking of Clive Wearing. Its subject is unambiguously the nature of memory and the recognition that human fascination with this area goes back thousands of years. The eleven texts that constitute the work embody two central ideas. Eight of them are lyrics of Ordway’s own devising; they attempt to encapsulate the narrator’s (the titular Girl in the Snow) early experiences, those moments many of us recognise later as key stepping-stones in shaping our understanding of life. Ordway imagines this narrator journeying through a snow-encrusted forest in her mind. En route she encounters animals and birds (numbers 1, 5 and 9 - those first ‘living’ objects that dazzle us in infancy); features of the natural environment (numbers 2 and 6) whilst reflecting upon those sources of essential psychological nourishment: home (number 3), love (number 7) and ‘The Mystery of the World’ itself (number 10 – a song which projects an unforgettably sad, conclusive grandeur). Ordway’s music is unfailingly vibrant and alive, approachable and tuneful, never twee. I would imagine these songs are a delight to sing and play – at least that is the inescapable conclusion one reaches when hearing the performances of mezzo Julia Dawson and accompanist Anna Naretto. Dawson’s rich, silvery voice is utterly sympathetic to Ordway’s delicate yet direct word-painting, Naretto’s accompaniment is generous and alert. There is nothing challenging or confrontational in this music, but repeated hearings suggest it will cut deep. I certainly don’t want to over-generalise, but Ordway’s language in these numbers might evoke both Britten and Barber. Yet there’s no hint of slavish imitation. There’s sufficient variety of pace and content to easily maintain one’s interest and across repeated hearings cultivate one’s admiration.
The second, more profound idea with which Ordway is concerned is the nature of memory itself. What on earth ‘is’ this thing? I used to present the example of Clive Wearing to my students as a means of illustrating how only memory enables us to imagine a future by giving us a foothold in the past. On one level Ordway seems to be attempting something similar. To this end he has fashioned three philosophical texts, adaptations drawn from the original Confesssions of St Augustine, each of which share ruminations on the nature, mechanics and meaning of memory. The three ‘Memory Plays’ which conclude each of the panels of Girl in the Snow can, I think, be consumed as a ‘cycle within a cycle’. These three songs provide a marked stylistic contrast to their companions. In each of them Ordway’s slow, stately piano parts are based on ritual-like repetition, an effect which seems to fall somewhere between Satie and Feldman. The vocal line in each song has been designed with great care and intricacy; one moment it’s syllabic and concentrated, the next it’s swooping, long-breathed and liberated. The texts of these ‘plays’ are inextricably concerned with ancient understandings and metaphors for memory and as such they comprise the philosophical core of the cycle. Hearing them as a trilogy is an experience in itself; Ordway’s chaste structures conceal something utterly profound whilst the intense focus of Dawson’s singing (and her attentive phrasing) and Naretto’s accompaniment cut to the quick. As a listener I found the idea of distraction a complete impossibility.
Julia Dawson seems to be an ideal pioneer for this fine cycle. The Acis engineers have effected a perfect recorded balance between her voice and Anna Neretto’s tactful accompaniment. The packaging and artwork are apt and graceful. There will be those who baulk at the disc’s rather short playing time but Girl in the Snow strikes me as quite complete in itself; I would want nothing to precede or follow it, frankly. Musically and spiritually speaking, it casts a spell that endures for some time. It certainly deserves to catch on and I hope that other singers and accompanists pick up on it.
1. The Fox in the Snow [2:34]
2. The Clean, Cold Air and the Great, Blue Sky [2:56]
3. The Mystery of Home [2:08]
4. Memory Play No 1 [3:04]
5. The Owl, Asleep in His tree [3:20]
6. The Grove of Quaking Aspens [3:38]
7. The Mystery of Love [2:51]
8. Memory Play No 2 [4:41]
9. The Rabbit, Warm in Her Burrow [3:32]
10. The Mystery of the World [4:13]
11. Memory Play No 3 [4:28]