Sadie Harrison: An Unexpected Light

Release Date: 5/29/2007
Label: NMC Records
Catalog Number: NMCD125
Composer: Sadie Harrison
Conductor: Donatas Katkus
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

In Stock
Notes and Editorial Reviews

S. HARRISON An Unexpected Light. 1 A Hidden Light. 2 Geda’s Weavings. 3 _Songs for Rusn?. . . . an Angel reads my open book . . . 4 The Bride’s Journey in 3 Songs and a Memory 5 Rusn? Mataityt? (vn); 1-5 Art?ras Šilal? (vn); 3 Vitalija Kaškevi?iut? (va); 3 Edmundas Kalikauskas (vc); 3,5 Sergejus Okruško (pn); 5 Albina Šikši?t? (pn); 2 Donatas Katkus, cond; 1 St Christopher CO, Vilnius 1 NMC 125 (79:34)

Sadie Harrison (born 1965) is an Australian-born composer resident in the U.K. A pupil of Nicola Lefanu, she writes highly individual music that, while couched in a modernist idiom, is always clearly constructed and beautifully scored.

Harrison has been preoccupied with the musics of other cultures for a while now. Her Light Garden Trilogy , available on Metier Records, is a work of some stature that takes Afghan music as its inspiration (it is recorded on 92084 but I can personally vouch for the fact that it is even more impressive live. A performance in Marylebone Church, London, in 2003 proved that conclusively).

The present project centers on the music of Lithuania, but also draws from the musics of Georgia, Khojent (now Russian Ferghana), and Armenia. The work called An Unexpected Light is in fact a violin concerto, commissioned by the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra and first performed by them in 2004 (it will be performed again in the Kaunas Music Festival, Lithuania, in November of this year). The folk tunes Harrison chooses occasionally come blatantly into focus (around 9:50, for example). These moments are surrounded by Harrison’s own rather uncompromising, gritty language, so that a friction is set up between the purity and timelessness of the folk world and the up-to-date, very epoch-rooted music of today. The interaction between the two forms the basis of a memorable, 20-minute journey. A brief cadenza around the 14-minute mark is a moment of pure beauty. Harrison’s world is one that, despite (or perhaps because of) its depiction of overt struggle, allows in moments of pure radiance—glimpses of an angelic beyond, perhaps? Mataityt? plays extremely expressively throughout, as if she has been playing it all her life.

A related work, A Hidden Light , comes immediately afterwards on the disc (although it was in effect an extended study for the concerto). Scored for violin and piano, it is described by the composer as “an assemblage of memories, transcriptions and interpretations of pre-Soviet folk musics that I know only as an outsider.” Again, folk music will come briefly into focus (four minutes in, for example) before being subsumed into Harrison’s own textures. These moments are like windows opening to reveal hidden lights (hence the title). The composer’s knowledge of this music comes from a Gramophone Company recording (“Before the Revolution: a 1909 Recording Expedition in the Caucasus and Central Asia” on Topic Records TSCD921), a distancing she not only acknowledges but uses to her advantage.

Scored for string quartet, Geda’s Weavings takes (“weaves”) threads from her other pieces in this project, sitting them together in one musical space. All credit to the performers here for invoking the very special sound world the composer evokes. Try just after the five-minute mark for the most spell-binding evocation of troubled stillness, or the intensely expressive isolated gestures around seven minutes for examples of how a simple compositional idea can have a deep effect on the listener. Although heard as one continuous piece, Geda’s Weavings is in three movements, separately tracked for convenience. The Second Weaving is inspired by the beautiful Poem for Arvydas, the Field of Love by Sigitis Geda, which is reprinted in the booklet. A still lament, it contrasts well with the more angular Third Weaving.

The Songs for Rusn? (2005) is a transcription for solo violin of six Lithuanian folk songs. Harrison has attempted to retain some of the vocal characteristics of the originals as well as some of the interpretative characteristics she heard on authentic recordings. Although for solo instrument, translations of the original texts appear in the supporting documentation to the present release. Mataityt?’s violin, in fact, seems to sing almost vocally, particularly in the first movement (a song performed by a bride after her wedding, from South Aukstaitija). The fourth, a lullaby, is simply beautiful; the final one, a swineherd’s song, is both amusing and playful.

Taking as inspiration the poetry of Sigitis Geda, . . an angel reads my open book . . . (for violin and piano, 2004) reflects the haunting imagery of the poems. Harrison tries to reflect the hope embodied in the poetry by the use of an imaginary hymn of bells, a hymn that can (and does) transform darkness into light. The rather disturbingly named “Traces of the toad cult found alongside Veprynas Lake” is the most brutal movement by far, but even this in its closing stages finds redemptive consonances tempering its energy. The desolation of “The collective request of the dead country children of Pateru Village” is almost palpable. The final movement, “Bell Music for St Casimir,” refers to the bells of the composer Vladimir Tarasov, constructed in 1997 in the tower of St. Casimir in Vilnius. Haunting music.

Finally, the four-movemented The Bride’s Journey in Three Songs and a Memory (2005) tracks the bride’s reactions around the process of marriage, from initial love through the ceremony and on to the lamenting of the loss of her previous life at home and, finally, a movement of memories of the bride’s life before marriage. The musical journey is from the hyper-delicacy of the opening through to the lively dance of the finale, but with much emphasis on nostalgia.

The obvious reference point for music that includes such clear ethnomusicological workings as part of its very fabric is, of course, Bartók. Like Bartók, Harrison weaves the musics into her (by now) highly developed and consistent vocabulary. But Harrison’s sound world is her own, and of course she takes her materials on a very different walk than Bartók might have done.

It is, surely, inconceivable that a composer possessed of such a questing and fertile mind, who writes with such openness to other cultures and with such formidable intelligence should remain with a small discography focused on the United Kingdom. For all States-side readers (the vast majority of this magazine, of course), may I humbly recommend an urgent search for this CD?

FANFARE: Colin Clarke
Works on This Recording
1. An Unexpected Light by Sadie Harrison
Performer: Rusne Mataityte (Violin)
Conductor: Donatas Katkus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2004 ;
2. A Hidden Light by Sadie Harrison
Performer: Albina Shikshniute (Piano), Rusne Mataityte (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
3. Geda’s Weavings by Sadie Harrison
Period: 20th Century
4. Songs for Rusnė by Sadie Harrison
Performer: Rusne Mataityte (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2005 ;
5. . . . an angel reads my open book . . . by Sadie Harrison
Performer: Sergejus Okrusko (Piano), Rusne Mataityte (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2004 ;
6. The Bride’s Journey in Three Songs and a Memory by Sadie Harrison
Performer: Edmundas Kalikauskas (Cello), Sergejus Okrusko (Piano), Rusne Mataityte (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2005 ;
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