Richard Emsley: A view of his Music

Richard Barrett

Richard Emsley’s relatively small but vital body of work has perhaps not received its just deserts, either in terms of frequency of performances or attention from the world of commissioning and publishing organizations. The primary reason for this, I believe, is an all-too-common one: his work is not as readily categorizable as that of many other young composers active in this country at present. Keith Potter implies as much in the only other article(1) published to date on Emsley’s work. Potter is much concerned with a supposed division between ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ in contemporary music. I believe that to be something of a red herring in this context – functioning in many cases as no more than a way of efficiently marketing, under the ‘designer label’ of postmodernism, much that lies in the uncertain territory between ‘music about music’ (which after all goes back at least to Stravinsky) and lack of imagination manifested as pastiche (which goes back much further). In any case it seems more fruitful, in the context of an introduction to Richard Emsley’s music, to see each composition as part of a gradually unfolding process within his oeuvre – an oeuvre which in fact has many features in common with the processes exemplified in the individual works themselves.

Emsley (b. 1951 in Goole, Yorkshire) characterizes himself as ‘very much the “single obsession” type of composer’.(2) Describing this ‘single obsession’, however, is not easy – naturally enough, it finds its means of projection most readily in the music. At the centre of Emsley’s work is a concern

… to heighten the listener’s sense of temporal ‘depth of field’ in such a way that (to continue the spatial analogy) the near and the distant may be simultaneously perceived. In strictly temporal terms, the intention is that the immediate experience of individual elements (the ‘near’) always be simultaneous with an awareness of the work’s broader time-spans (the ‘distant’), and indeed with imaginary spans extending far beyond the temporal boundaries of the piece (the ‘infinitely distant’).

In psychological terms, the experience of passing time is made explicitly and deliberately a function of the musical material: time is rendered polyphonic by the coexistence of ‘different time-worlds’, or annulled in an almost static music where events hang in the air without causality or consequence. Emsley is ‘interested not in “ending” so much as in an “end” at one level being revealed as a “middle” at the next level up, and so on “upwards” ‘: and this is a feature both of the structure of individual works and their succession in the ‘super-structure’ which constitutes his output so far. In some ways his most recent works represent a cyclic return to the world of the earliest ones, but a return intimately affected by the experience of the intervening compositional activity: one which will no doubt provide a starting-point – or a restarting-point (but in other senses a mid-point) – for the next cycle of activity.

Emsley’s first acknowledged work was written during his period of study under Arnold Whittall at University College Cardiff (during which, as a founder member of the Cardiff Composers’ Ensemble, he also began to take responsibility for presenting his own work in performance, later continuing with the ensemble Suoraan which he co-founded with James Clarke). This is The lunar silences, the silent tide lapping… (1973) for flute, clarinet, 4 percussionists, piano, and violin. In some ways, particularly in the scoring for multiple tuned percussion, this piece may relate to the analytical study of the work of Boulez on which Emsley was occupied during this time – however, in its quiet way it is wholly individual and a great deal more daring than many composers are prepared to be at the age of 22. It consists of some 20 short fragments (which the composer describes as ‘decorations of time’), separated by silences; in each fragment, a different texture on the five percussive instruments provides the context for melodic material (reminiscent of Webern at his most coolly aphoristic) on the three melody instruments. This scheme is shot through with just enough ‘exceptions to the rule’ to render it unpredictable, mildly quirky. If it might be felt that the melodic strands are insufficiently memorable to hold the foreground, the textural element is striking for its instrumental economy (even given the resources used, nothing is wasted) and delicate sense of the borderline between motion and stasis.

With Syntagm for 3 players of 1975, Emsley begins to work around the idea of stratified structures, at its simplest here in a kind of A1B1A2B2 structure – two superimposed binary forms (controlling different musical dimensions), one repeating itself at twice the rate of the other. In Hologenesis (1978) for solo clarinet, a similar organizing principle is found: in the course of three movements, characterized primarily by tempo (fast-slow-fast), a unitary underlying process creates a movement of ‘expanding perspective’ – a proliferation of types of material, which gradually and exhaustively defines and delimits the range of possibilities constituting the piece. More importantly, however, Hologenesis shows an increasing complexity of aspect in comparison with Emsley’s earlier work: a sign that the influence of Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy was beginning to make itself felt – this at a time when their music was being little more than ignored in Britain. Although it becomes constantly apparent during the succeeding works that Emsley is concerned with overall perceptible processes to a far greater extent than these composers, it is equally obvious that his music of the ‘Suoraan period’ (1979-82) mostly takes on an altogether more dense and aggressive character, and that after Emsley left the ensemble there ensued a period of silence. This was probably necessary to assimilate the transformations his work had undergone, and reappraise his relationship with it. Although all the compositions written for Suoraan are scored for some combination of the ensemble’s line-up of flute, oboe, mezzo-soprano, piano, and percussion (only the vibraphone, in all but one piece), each is given individuality by insistence on a single (if not simple) compositional paradigm. As with Emsley’s music before and since, this does not take the form of an abstraction as a device to hang the music on, but pervades the psychology of the piece from its overall formal outline to the smallest details.

At Once (1979) is an early, characteristic, and successful example of this approach, even though the composer states that its character ‘isn’t altogether in keeping with the kind of imaginative world I intended’. The paradigm here is that of scalic structures (the interweaving and overlapping scales which characterize the beginning of the piece evoke the ‘arborescences’ and synthetic modes of Xenakis, whom Emsley acknowledges as another important influence). The figure of divergent scales emanating from a single note is reflected, on the highest level, in the processes of divergence which motivate the whole work – divergence from unity and simultaneity (‘at once’) into stratification, towards disintegration and chaos. In the course of this process many fascinating textures arise: a virtuosic solo for the oboe d’amore, a kind of ‘synthetic gamelan’ on piano and percussion (Emsley denies any specific influence of gamelan music, not having heard any at this stage: the similarity is a natural product of the confluence of internal forces operating in the music). The piano takes the process of disintegration further than the rest of the ensemble, eventually bursting out to dominate it completely in a Finnissyesque high-energy explosion. (The presence of Michael Finnissy himself as pianist, and eventual director, of Suoraan led most of the composers writing for it to take advantage of his extraordinary pianistic technique to the full, not always with markedly successful results. Although often involved in music of considerable complexity and difficulty, Richard Emsley has very seldom taken this aspect to extremes – it is by no means a sine qua non of his compositional thinking.)

Snatches (1979) is a set of five miniatures, in which music from The lunar silences turns up reorchestrated and balanced between static and more fleeting sections, tightening up the previous essay in discontinuity perhaps at the cost of some of its more alluring characteristics.

Skhistos (1980) is much more hard-edged. The ‘splittings’ of the title are between horizontal strata (the composer relates this to certain types of rock-formation) which eventually occupy their own rigid tempi (or ‘time-worlds’); the ‘horizontality’ of these strata is emphasized by the extensive use of rapidly reiterated notes and chords (including woodwind multiphonics). Again, the increasing independence of the simultaneous strata is marked by a piano passage of great complexity, interspersing jagged two-part writing with repeated chords, all at breakneck speed; events in this relentless solo serve to trigger entries and cutoffs in the other parts. The angular figurations of this music are gradually abandoned in a superimposition of repeated notes in unsynchronized tempi. The integration of material in Skhistos is much more pronounced than in Emsley’s previous works: the form itself also takes on an arc- or wave-like shape (that is, a rise in rates of change followed by a complementary fall – which characteristically involves ending at a point which reviews the initial situation in the light of the evolutions it has undergone), which was henceforth to take on central importance in Emsley’s structural thinking.

The two remaining compositions written for Suoraan exemplify opposing tendencies. The Juniper Tree (1981), originally for shadow puppet theatre and ensemble, represents an extreme point for Emsley not only of ‘new’ complexity (and almost constantly oppressive dynamic level) but also of coexistent and independent tempi on various levels, coordinated by a network of cues. The use of congas rather than vibraphone emphasizes the innate aggressiveness of the work. Helter-Skelter, from the same year, is well on the way towards the world of Emsley’s most recent music; although the instruments are tied to conventional (irregular) barring, their parts seem to float with an almost Japanese poise and timelessness.

On the other hand, these two works stem from a similar philosophical approach (which had slowly been taking coherent shape over the preceding years) –

in which the activity of each separate instant is experienced always in terms of the larger entity of the whole work. In order that the ‘entity of the whole work’ may be sensed at each instant and continually referred to in this way – as a single, almost corporeal presence pervading the piece – it is conceived as a limited collection of unchanging qualities which is embodied in the activity of each moment.

In other words, the changing events which constitute a composition are given unity and direction by the unique and limited ‘vocabulary’ which is the basis of that composition’s identity. Emsley himself likens this concept to the limited vocabularies, and work-specific syntactic and punctuational usages, in the later writing of Samuel Beckett. The Juniper Tree, which has also been performed as a concert piece, uses material of a high degree of dense activity to project underlying qualities which change very much more slowly (pitch fields, densities, articulations…). Uncharacteristically, in this work these underlying qualities generally inhabit a world of harshness and violence, culminating at the end in a flurry of multiphonic trills on the cor anglais reminiscent of Heinz Holliger’s Stüdie über Mehrklänge (and no doubt stimulated by the astonishing abilities of Suoraan’s oboist, Christopher Redgate). Helter-Skelter, perhaps understandably after this outburst, excludes the oboe, being a trio for flute, vibraphone and piano. Each of the three parts consists of registrally wide-ranging phrases separated by long pauses; the characteristics of these phrases change very gradually, but the music is worlds away from the wilful gracelessness of The Juniper Tree. The interwoven phrases function both as textural backdrop and as melodic foreground, and have a ‘natural’ curve and sweep much more memorable (not to mention redolent of stillness) than the quasi-serial motives of The lunar silences.

Cut/Dissolve (1984), Emsley’s first post-Suoraan piece (apart from Ivan and the Firebird, a music theatre piece for children which, the composer says, aside from its concern for mythic archetype is ‘not part of my “mainstream” ‘), is a solo for percussion commissioned by Elizabeth Davis. The instrumentation is that of a jazz kit with added cowbells, oildrums, and gongs: this work would seem to stand outside the majority of Emsley’s oeuvre by reason of its being unpitched, when the majority of his work allows its pitch structure to dominate its foreground interest – but in fact, its deployment of timbral groupings of instruments is closely analogous to that of changing pitch-fields in other works. Cut/Dissolve is, however, exceptional in another sense – the seemingly meandering, improvisational surface is in fact generated by a more complex, rigid, and cerebral structuring than Emsley is wont to employ, although this does not detract from the work’s success in embodying a quasi-cinematic approach to change as suggested by the title (Example 3).

The next work, … from swerve of shore to bend of bay…, was commissioned by The Fires of London and written between 1984 and 1985, and is scored for alto flute/piccolo, bass clarinet/E flat clarinet, percussion, piano, viola, and cello – in passing, the avoidance of ‘regular’ woodwind instruments (and violin) is noteworthy, in that it already gives this somewhat overused combination an unusual timbral slant. The music is probably Emsley’s most individual and impressive to date. Again, the composition is concerned with a wave-like form: this time, though, a whole range of wave-imagery lies behind the music. Waveforms of different shapes and sizes coexist, the internal complexity of ocean waves underlying their global simplicity and clarity, the gentle ebb and flow suggested by the passage from Finnegans Wake (which of course is steeped in such imagery) from which the title is drawn. In fact the form of the piece consists of three and a half rising-falling arches, where a rise comprises a movement from fragmentedness to ‘cascading’ figures and a cutoff (the pause at the ‘crest of the wave’ or, analogously, that between inhalation and exhalation in the ‘breath’ of the music) – followed by a tutti attack leading back to the original gently-disordered state in a less developmental, more informal fashion.

What is immediately striking is the way in which this cyclic structure is articulated by greatly refined instrumental/colouristic gesture. Any hint of derivativeness which may occasionally have marked the pieces for Suoraan has been abandoned; but the experience of working with more complex, less sharply-delineated, sound-formations than previously has left its mark on this shimmering music, ‘equivocating between permanence and change’. Its edges and turning-points tend more often than not to hover on the brink of perceptibility, as does the cyclicity of the structure, whose rigidity is constantly undermined by the music seeming to break free in capricious directions of its own (Example 4).

Emsley has completed only one work since … from swerve of shore to bend of bay…: the equally finely-wrought piano piece Flow Form, written for Robert Keeley in 1986-87. This seven-minute composition is notated entirely on one stave, and entirely in the treble clef transposed up by one octave. It consists of monodic phrases (as does the piano part of Helter-Skelter) interspersed by (sometimes extended) silences; the phrases are mostly groups of variously ‘irrationalized’ semiquavers in a tempo fluctuating slowly around dotted-crotchet = 63, with less frequent quaver durations and interleaved minim noteheads directed to be ‘distinctly more accented and percussive (“bell-like”)’. The sustaining pedal is held throughout except at formal subdivisions (which separate sections distinguished only subtley and minimally from one another) and the average dynamic is unobtrusive.

The return to stasis in Emsley’s music is here completed – and it might be pertinent to ask at this point where exactly such a work as Flow Form stands relative to the modern/postmodern divide, since it eschews just about all the characteristics of mainstream ‘modernistic’ music in favour of a virtual continuum (whose internal transformations tend to creep in unnoticed) which is just as much removed from spurious pseudo-orientalism. (Although Emsley admits his recent work to have been affected by a study of Zen, it also relates to a different view of stillness: Beckett’s stillness of exhaustion and minimally coherent monologue). Richard Emsley has now embarked on what may be a swing back to richness and density, having started work in late 1987 on a composition for full orchestra. If the fineness of ear evinced in … from swerve of shore to bend of bay… is allowed here to develop further, we may look forward to something both totally idiomatic and replete with freshly-imagined sonority; in which Emsley’s ability to transform and integrate may find its fullest opportunity to flourish. Whether we may look forward to a performance in the foreseeable future is another matter, given a state of things in which orchestral performances (not to mention commissions) seem to be divided up between fewer and fewer composers. I cannot be the only person who would rather hear a new orchestral piece by Richard Emsley than yet another perfomance of Ringed by the Flat Horizon or some such. Naturally, Emsley’s recent work demands concentration and stillness (he speaks of ‘music for silencing the “mental chattering”…having music create the conditions for intuitive activity’) to an extent not relevant to much of today’s music. It does not force itself on the listener by crude sensation, hold itself up on some shaky edifice of intellectual scaffolding, or present itself as an example of the next fashionable tendency. Nevertheless, one might hope that such an introduction as this will encourage further interest, even at a time when the contemporary music industry (and it is one, even if not much more than a cottage industry) does not lend itself to the wider appreciation of music like this (and Emsley is not the only example – how many have heard the very different and quite remarkable music of Mark Taylor?); in fact is constituted so as to give, at most, only half the story of the unprecedentedly rich compositional activity in this country.

(1) K. Potter, ‘Absence of intention’, Classical Music, 3 May 1986.
(2) All quotes from the composer stem from his (unpublished) notes on the music, programme notes, and conversations with the present writer during the latter part of 1987.

This article originally appeared in Tempo No.164 (March 1988) and is reprinted here by kind permission.