For the latest of their discs on Signum devoted to single composers, the BBC Singers, under conductors Simon Joly and Stephen Cleobury, have turned toEdward Cowie. Cowie was the BBC Singers first associate composer (from 2002-2005) but the works on this disc stretch back to 1975. Bookended by performances of Cowie’s Lyre Bird Motet (2002) and its companion Bell Bird Motet (2011), the main work on the disc is Cowie’s Gesangbuch (1975-76) performed with the instrumental ensemble Endymion, plus The Soft Complaining Flute with Simon Preston.
Edward Cowie (born 1943) studied with Alexander Goehr and Witold Lutoslawki but he also trained at the Slade as an artist and trained first as a physicist. Cowie employs the act of drawing as a part of the compositional process, and the CD booklet includes images from sketchbooks which relate to the works on the disc. For Cowie these form a second stage of the process (you can see some samples on Edward Cowie’s website) before the final composition. The visual images are surprisingly delicate and colourful, with an emphasis on texture which comes as no surprise to someone familiar with Cowie’s music.
The pieces on this disc don’t really use melody as such, nor do they use words. Cowie generally sets phonetic sounds of his own invention alongside fragments of texts taken from his preparatory sketches. Instead he plays with colours and textures in the music, distilling work from lots of fragments. The results are sometimes difficult to apprehend at first, and I found myself fretting about what texts were being used. But Cowie uses his voices like instruments, line is generally not important. Instead you get clusters of notes and sounds, tiny inflections which build.
Cowie’s Bell Bird Motet was commissioned by the BBC Radio 3 for Cowie’s Earth Music Festival in 2011, an event celebrating composers, artists, film makers and writers responses to the natural world. The Bell Bird Motet is a companion piece to Cowie’s Lyre Bird Motet and like that piece, Bell Bird Motet evokes an Australian scene (Cowie spent 12 years there). Bell Bird Motet is set at dawn, the work opens from nothing with the evocation of several species of Australian frogs, before the women’s voices recreate the bell-like chanting of the Bell Bird. Cowie’s writing combines these transcriptions of wild life sounds with fragments of more conventionally harmonised music, almost like a sort of commentary.
The Soft Complaining Flute (2003) is written for six sopranos and baroque flute. Though Cowie is deliberately referring to baroque music (the title comes from Handel’s Hymn to St. Cecilia), the flute writing includes many advanced techniques. And because of the way Cowie writes for the voices, it is sometimes tricky to tell whether you hear a flute or a soprano.
Gesangbuch (1975 – 76) is a four movement work for mixed chorus and 13 instruments. It was commissioned by the Brighton Festival and premiered by the BBC Singers and the Brighton Festival Ensembl. Each movement evokes a different location and a different season (Herbstlich – Eaves Wood; Winterlied – Martinmere; Habichtswald – Spring; Stimmungsbid – Hest Bank). Each movements is accompanied by a different combination of instruments (wind, strings, horn, harp, piano, celeste and percussion) with the choir, full in the outer movements, just men in the second movement and just women in the third. The work is dedicated to Michael Tippett, who was a close friend and mentor of Cowie’s at the time. It opens in the autumn, with the play of light on the autumn leaves, and concludes, amazingly, firmly and rapturously in F sharp major.
Like the first piece on the disc, Gesangbuch mixes textures but here instead of contrasting conventional melodic fragments with bird calls, Cowie contrasts the singers with the instrumental ensemble creating two complementary but contrasting textures. The piece is full of little melodic fragments which come together to make a series of distinctive textures. The work is bigger boned and harder edged than the two purely vocal pieces on the disc.
Finally, Lyre Bird Motet (2002). During Cowie’s time in Australia he made many trips alone. On one of these, at dusk, he came across several male lyre birds singing in a series of interlocking bu combative performances. Their songs combined flute like arabesques with clicks and hisses. The choral piece concludes with the sopranos each intoning different versions of the lyre bird song.
Edward Cowie’s choral music cannot be easy to perform, it’s pointillist nature requiring supreme accuracy from the performer. On this disc under Stephen Cleobury and Simon Joly, the BBC Singers combine accuracy and delicacy. But they go further and give us superb evocations of Edward Cowie’s landscapes. They are finely supported in Gesanbuch by Endymion.
The CD booklet includes full notes but, rather frustratingly, no texts. This might be difficult in the case of a composer like Cowie, but when you can hear the choir singing a text but neither discern it nor read it in the CD booklet, then things become a little frustrating.
The music on this disc might not quite fit into the conventional choral music mode. But in these fine performances it is highly evocative, do give it a try.