The Music of Richard Emsley

Ian Pace

Much music could be said to ‘state’, to ‘affirm’, to provide bold utterances that reflect the supposed strength of personality of the composer, waving their sword in the direction of the riff-raff around them. Richard Emsley’s work is quite unlike this; his music exists and interacts rather than affirms, more concerned with the creating of aesthetic and acoustic spaces than with some swaggering statement of presence. It is also a music that is both hyper-real and unreal: hyper-real in its expansion of types of connotative and even emotive gestures far beyond the context from which they might have previously emerged, unreal in the sense that it creates a form of listening experience consciously ‘outside’ the realms of everyday existence, in a way which I would describe as transcendental rather than escapist.

A musical culture such as that of Britain is remarkable both for the diversity of invention contained within, but also for the abject refusal to accept those parts of itself that fail to conform to easily digestible categories. Emsley’s work does not easily fit into any pigeonhole, and he stands as one of the numerous remarkable composers working outside of the mainstream in Britain today. He has throughout his compositional career sought alternatives to the goal-oriented and manipulative tendencies that have characterized much music of recent centuries, seeking instead ways of creating sonic experiences in time which invite, but do not force, a listener to enter into contemplative modes of hearing and thinking. These modes serve to heighten and refine consciousness, rather than dull it through reiteration of the familiar.

The music on this disc is highly diverse, and represents a reasonably broad cross-section of Emsley’s work. Listeners should be struck by the immense stylistic divergence between the aloof world, always at a distance exceeding that of possible apprehension, of Helter-Skelter, and the charged, primeval force of The Juniper Tree, despite the fact that both pieces were written in the same year. Yet there are deeper similarities between these two supposedly dissimilar works: both show little in the way of motivic or thematic working and their implied dialectics; instead they present a type of continually mutating substance.

In the case of The Juniper Tree, this substance is almost plasmatic, and Emsley’s ability to sustain tension, coherence and interest over its 20-odd minute span is remarkable. This work was written at the high-point of the pioneering London new music ensemble Suoraan, which Emsley co-founded and directed with composer James Clarke. This ensemble’s path-breaking achievements centered around the super-human instrumental and vocal abilities of its members: flautist Nancy Ruffer, oboist Christopher Redgate, percussionist John Harrod, pianist Michael Finnissy and vocalist Josephine Nendick, all of whom significantly expanded the boundaries of instrumental technique and expression in a way which opened up many new possibilities for composers. The extended high-octane level of The Juniper Tree in some ways resembles other works of the period, such as Richard Barrett’s Coïgitum, Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and the works of Hans-Joachim Hespos, not to mention the oboe writing of Heinz Holliger, which Redgate pioneered in the UK.

A pivotal work, from which this disc takes its title, is the piano piece Flow Form, which represents within Emsley’s output both the end of one period and the beginning of another. In this piece, the type of intensely linear and omni-directional writing, with connotations of non-Western musics (in part related to Emsley’s study of Zen) which are to be found somewhat in Helter-Skelter are presented in the form of an extended piece entirely on a single line. This type of monophonic piano idiom had some precedents (for example in Michael Finnissy’s English Country-Tunes) but rarely in anything like this manner. The sparseness of the writing serves to focus the listener’s attention more acutely on the finest details of pitch, rhythm and accentuation, revealing a plethora of intimacy and subtlety.

After Flow Form, Emsley had a near decade-long compositional hiatus, during which period he spent much time thinking through the implications of the much sparser writing of this work, the contradictions between his sense of composition as a process of discovery and the requirement for finished, closed-off, pieces, and the work of composers for whom he felt some affinity or admiration, such as Feldman, Nono and Scelsi. After years of compositional experimentation, it was with another piano piece finnissys fifty, written for the 50th birthday of Michael Finnissy, that Emsley returned to the writing of completed works. Since then there have been a wide range of other piano pieces, including for piano 2 & 3, which exemplify his new pared-down and ultra-refined idiom. Lines or pairs of lines are used to create forms of extended aphorism; a piece has a unity of purpose rather than a clear direction, and could be said to be a statement rather than a process. But Emsley also describes a quality of ‘narrative’ in the music:

“we use the word lyrical to suggest singing, but the term goes back to the Greeks’ lyrical poetry, in which a story was told, without direct speech, but in song to the accompaniment of the lyre – a combination of narrative and music. In my pieces a sense of ‘line’ may emerge additionally from there being a sense of ‘telling a story’.”

The static nature and idiomatic unity of all of these pieces focusses one’s attention on the minutest harmonic, rhythmic, registral and gestural details, and the inner qualities of individual notes, which in themselves are not at all static. The pieces clearly demarcate the space in which they operate, distinct from conventional musical expectations, perhaps ‘on the other side of the mirror’. Some of the pieces are written in the form of a single line, though the wide tessitura creates a type of counterpoint between different groups pitches in particular registers. ‘Expressive’ markings are wide are varied, ranging from the familiar lyrico and cantabile to meccanico or dolce senza espressione.

Since finnissy fifty, Emsley has continued with a long series of piano pieces (at present ranging up to for piano 18), which continue to expand and incorporate new ideas (for example a disjunction between physical action and seeming sonic result in for piano 10, so as to foreground the sound of the piano’s mechanism). This body of work stands as an important achievement, I believe, whose conscious use of self-imposed constraints never ceases to heighten the music’s urgency and depth.

© Ian Pace 2002