When Worlds Collide
The Music of Nigel Clarke
Brass Band Buizingen
Conductor: Luc Vertommen
Soloists: Glenn Van Looy, Harmen Vanhoorne
Poetry: Martin Westlake
Narration: Frank Renton
BBU Recordings: BBU88931-2
Total Playing Time: Double CD 51.50 & 53.28
Nigel Clarke stands apart in the modern world of brass band composition.
His works are as deft and subtle as they are bold and brilliant; the music drawn from a capacious intellectual hinterland that encompasses the satirical sharpness of Jonathan Swift and the allegorical darkness of Herman Melville.
Pen and the Sword
Clarke’s compositional pen is mightily more creative in producing substantive works than the blunt edged swords so many contemporaries currently bludgeon us with in major championship test pieces.
The dystopian brilliance of ‘When Worlds Collide’ (or Little Green Men in Intergalactic spaceships with Rayguns and Phasers), is ostensibly a homage to the bizarre 1950’s sci-fi B movies.
It is also a fantastical political polemic of a bypassed generation’s misinformed understanding of all things ‘alien’.
Replace ‘The Blob’ with Brussels and the ‘Mysterians’ with the minions of Maastricht, and as Martin Westlake’s disturbingly witty poem suggests, we may have already been conquered and colonised from afar.
Swift would be delighted. We are all Europeans now.
‘Earthrise’ also asks the listener to ponder on all our futures.
The iconic image taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 of a luminescent globe floating amid eternal Bible blackness – ‘The Good Earth’ as they described it, still has the ability to resonate even with a modern day generation grown bored of non sci-fi lunar travel.
Not so the composer (born in 1960) who recreates the sense of raw excitement and wonderment of the era of Saturn rocket blast offs and splashdown returns with alluring vibrancy.
As they do throughout this double CD, Buizingen (this time in a live performance from the 2010 Europeans) deliver his sparkling inventiveness superbly.
Soloists, Glenn Van Looy and Harmen Vanhoorne, perform the brace of featured concertos with a staggering level of virtuosity without for a moment losing touch with the musical core of the immense works.
Both ‘The City in the Sea’ and ‘Mysteries of the Horizon’ have subtle elements of allegory in their DNA.
The former is a ghostly tale of nature’s destructiveness of medieval village life – one that has echoes of the economic tsunami of despair that afflicts so many isolated communities today.
The latter relates to the questioning, quizzical response the Belgian artist Magritte manages to instil in our thought processes towards seemingly non-descript imagery.
Drama and capricious fate
As if to enclose the composer’s immense skill set, the CD opens and closes with works of evocative drama and capricious fate.
‘Tilbury Point’ is a colourful portrait of the buccaneering pirate Captain Kidd, whose entrepreneurial escapades ended with him swinging from the end of a noose – his flagellated corpse dipped in tar and hung as a warning to others at the mouth of the River Thames.
The music (performed live at the 2009 WMC in Kerkrade) echoes the lilting meter of Martin Westlake’s poetry like the pendulous swing of the Captain’s horrifically caged final resting place.
‘Swift Severn’s Flood’ is also a brooding tale of demise – this time Owain Glyndwr’s ultimately futile attempt to conquer the pernicious forces of Henry IV after series of Welsh cross border skirmishes.
The Shakespearian poetry cannot be bettered – and neither can the playing.
With outstanding performances by Brass Band Buizingen directed with commanding authority by Luc Vertommen, enhanced by the wonderful poetry (which you can also download off the second disc) and Frank Renton’s nuanced narration, this double CD is one of the finest, intellectually engaging recordings for many a year.
Nigel Clarke does indeed stand apart in the modern world of brass band composition – and this release proves it in full.
Long may he continue to do so.
THE BRITISH BANDSMAN REVIEW
When Worlds Collide, The Music of Nigel Clarke
Brass Band Buizingen, conductor Luc Vertommen, with Harmen Vanhoorne (cornet), Glenn van Looy (euphonium) and Frank Renton (speaker)
88931-2 Available from World of Brass, Midland CD and 4barsrest
Between 1994 and 1997, Nigel Clarke was Composer-in-Residence of Black Dyke Band. James Watson engaged the young composer to challenge his band with fresh musical adventures and Clarke achieved this in a series of bold creations, one of which is included in this terrific double album. The ghostly woops and wails that open and close his Euphonium Concerto, The City in the Sea, reveal Clarke as an instinctive creator of mood and atmosphere. This difficult work – for soloist, band and listener – paints a vivid picture of Dunwich, once a major port town on the Suffolk coast, which was all but engulfed by the sea in 1326. The music contrasts lean, almost terse, counterpoints with evocative wisps of tuned percussion. Glenn van Looy matches the work’s first soloist, Robert Childs, in his attention to the detail of the hugely demanding solo part. Listening to the three test-pieces he has composed more recently for Brass Band Buizingen (BBB), it’s clear that his harmonic language has softened a good deal and his palette of colours has become much richer and subtler – the impact no doubt of his highly regarded work in films. Clarke is based in Brussels these days, and the close ‘bespoke’ connection between composer, conductor and band is amply evident throughout. We hear the Shakespeare-inspired tone poem, Swift Severn’s Flood, in a pulsating live recording from the 2009 World Music Contest in Kerkrade. The music depicts a bloody battle on the banks of the Severn in a series scenes founded on a relentless march. It’s strong, noisy stuff, full of rushing semi-quavers and surges of energy, performed with panache and admirable concentration. There is more time for repose in Earthrise, which Clarke composed for BBB to play at the 2010 European Championships in Linz. Inspired by one of Williams Anders’ iconic photographs of the Earth taken from Apollo 8 in1968, the music contrasts the excitement and expectation of the first moon landing and the return, in music of breathless virtuosity, with a ‘floating’ middle section in which time and gravity appear suspended, as the whole band engages firstly in a group cadenza and then in a ‘timeless’ melody against the backdrop of tuned percussion – magical.
The title track, When Worlds Collide, is the most challenging of the test-pieces for the listener. In attempting to recreate the ‘atmosphere and sentiment of the American 1950s ‘sci-fi’ movies’, Clarke has created a soundscape of 11 short sections that rush by at lightning pace. Without any ‘visuals’ the experience borders on the confusing, although Clarke does not want the piece to sound ‘safe’ but full of fun, which he certainly achieves. This wacky work benefits from a clear studio sound. Harmen Vanhoorne’s much-admired performance of Clarke’s dashing concerto, Mysteries of the Horizon (already reviewed on his solo album) and the short, colourful overture, Tilbury Point, are included for good measure. Conductor and composer could not have wished for more committed and focussed performances from the band. The scene for each work is set by lines from Shakespeare (for the opening item) and by evocative poems specially commissioned from Martin Westlake. Frank Renton’s delivery is an added bonus. – Paul Hindmarsh
Nigel Clarke CD review ‘When Worlds Collide’
**** BRASS BAND WORLD CD OF THE MONTH *****
If there is one aspect that immediately strikes home about this impressive double CD, it is the feeling of synergy that exists between composer and performers. Although hailing from Margate, Nigel Clarke has been resident in Brussels for some years and has developed a close working relationship with Belgian National Champions Brassband Buizingen and its talented MD Luc Vertommen, presently working as the band’s Associate Composer.
Several of Clarke’s recent works have consequently been written with Buizingen’s players in mind in music that makes huge technical and physical demands on the performers both collectively and individually. Listening to these stunning performances however, it is apparent that Buizingen are completely on top of the challenge, delivering every piece with remarkable technical prowess.
In the oldest work, the Euphonium Concerto `The City in the Sea’, the music rises mysteriously from the ocean’s depths in an atmospheric evocation of the submerged medieval East Anglian town of Dunwich, played with breathtaking facility by Glenn van Looy, now a permanent fixture at Buizingen. What the composer describes as the most “eccentric” piece, the overture `Tilbury Point’ (although `When Worlds Collide’ runs it pretty close for the accolade) is a rollicking portrait of the pirate, Captain Kidd and displays a lighter side to the composer’s creative personality.
‘Mysteries of the Horizon’, a stamina sapping, vividly dramatic four-movement cornet concerto played magnificently by Harmen Vanhoorne and previously released on the dedicatee’s solo album is inspired by the surreal paintings of René Magritte whilst `Earthrise’ portrays the extreme velocity of the Apollo 8 mission and it’s radiantly beautiful view of Earth from space. `Swift Severn’s Flood’, a Shakespeare inspired ‘Musical Drama’ paints a dramatic portrait of Edmund de Mortimer’s battle with Owain Glyn Dwr in powerfully pictorial music that owes much to Clarke’s credentials as a composer of film scores.
That leaves the title track, `When Worlds Collide’, a quirky, distinctly offbeat response to early 1950’s sci-fi movies that for all its zany effects and tongue in cheek humour, belies a piece of dazzling creative virtuosity.
With Frank Renton’s silver-tongued recitation of the words of Shakespeare and poet Martin Westlake providing a neat link between each piece and an impressively packaged triple fold out case with excellent notes by the composer himself, this recording is both a virtuosic tour de force and a compelling portrait of a composer of ever increasing significance.