After the inordinate amounts of difficulties – in every meaning – introduced to largely unfertile audiences by Walter & Sabrina (the duo’s continuum effectively terminated in 2010) Walter Cardew comes back to action with a quartet comprising himself on electric guitar, Helen Whitaker on flute and alto flute, Horace Cardew on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano sax, and Androniki Liokoura on piano. The unpretentiousness of the names – both of the group and this short record – belies the profoundness of the intelligent complexity defining Cardew’s newer music; its communicative pellucidity (in spite of a number of unannounced quirks) will make levelheaded listeners blissful.
An identifying attribute of this gathering of scores – three duets, two trios, a quartet and a solo guitar piece ending the program – is the sense of involved closeness transmitted by the performances. All the compositions are tightly executed and indubitably well-rehearsed, intelligible down to the tiniest details. The choice of positioning an electric guitar – tones ranging from bright clean to overdriven, amplifier’s hum included – amidst the acoustic scents of a chamber ensemble might have resulted in serious damage. But Cardew is a first-class player gifted with digital facility and rational connectedness that elevate the nuances of his instrument and the album’s overall resonance alike. My suspicion is that the large part of the material was composed with the hands on the axe, as several contrapuntal junctions seem to evolve directly from chordal clusters and fingered figurations that are typical of a specific way of approaching the six strings, with which this writer sympathizes entirely.
References? I could not exactly say, though names that vaguely came to mind were Fred Frith (the initial “Quartet 45/2”), Gavin Bryars (especially in the sections where melancholic luminance and semi-darkness fuse over the course of severe harmonic propagations) and even Nick Didkovsky’s Doctor Nerve (the angularity of certain lines, the abrupt surges in the distortion level characterizing, for instance, “Duet 23/2” – incidentally, the lone track in which I detected a modicum of improvisation by WC). In “Duet In Three Parts 38”, violinist Mizuka Yamamoto joins the leader in a series of oscillations halfway through ascetic composure and extreme strain, to a point of nearly intractable energy. Indeed, the balance between suspensive environments and fascinating evocations in cantabile dressing is practically perfect throughout the set; for this, one has to thank Whitaker, Horace Cardew and Liokoura warmly.
Beware: treat these mere suggestions as such, for this is not the sort of work that can be easily compared. Chamber Music opens a new stimulating phase in the career of a composer whose famous cognomen is the symbolic representation of the handing of an immaterial baton of creative thinking from a generation to another.
UPDATE OCTOBER 7, 2012: Walter Cardew responds with some interesting technical explanations, which I’m pasting here.
WALTER CARDEW: Most of the pieces begin life as melodic settings of poems; I also use the poems form to help set up a structure (for example if it has regular or irregular verses, what kind of rhyming patterns etc). Then I will make various versions or studies sometimes just for solo piano or solo guitar etc, and shape the melody further. Then when I make the piece into a version for the group and have to add a guitar part; well in spite of your kind words about my facility! In fact my limitations force some quite interesting “compromises”. For example the duet for flute and guitar (43/2) started out as a violin and piano piece; when I had to transcribe the piano part for the guitar it had to be almost completely changed – a different kind of harmony almost, and greatly stripped down. So most of the melodies aren’t written with the guitar, but once a guitar part is developed (with guitar in hand) I will often find myself altering melodies accordingly. Also, during the studies phase, if I make a solo guitar version I might alter the melody once it starts to come to life a bit. (but I will almost always make adjustments depending on the instrument – and even player – being used). The main exception is the first Quartet 45/2, the melody of which was written on guitar with the open A pedal built in.
I’m glad you picked up on the “improvisation” in 23/2. The piece is conceived as a composed half followed by an improvised half, but the actual “solo” is more or less composed now! I developed it by improvising and recording, and then it became more or less set – I’m not nearly a good enough improviser to do that “on the fly”. But in a sense it is still an improvised solo, it’s just the improvising was done at an earlier stage. I have published the score with the option for the guitarist to make up their own solo or play a transcription of mine. But there are also other improvised sections for clarinet and flute (the bass clarinet in 54/1 and bass clarinet and flute in 55/2) and in a way I’m quite glad that there isn’t perhaps a clear distinction in those pieces about where the composition stops and the improvisation begins – it’s hard for me to tell because I know them so well.