The Grand Design

Jean-Luc Fafchamps
YZ3Z2Z1S2, a Five-letter Sufi Word

The work of noted Belgian composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps was hitherto entirely new to this reviewer. Materially, and in terms of attitude, direction and format, however, there is nothing here that would immediately surprise or trouble those with a working knowledge of avant-garde and contemporary orchestral music. Fafchamps’ chosen language, along with its organisation and manner of delivery, sits comfortably with the likes of, say, Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage and early Peter Maxwell Davies, or, for that matter, Boulez, even those earlier moves set in train by Messiaen, Schoenberg, Bartók; that is to say in ranging over some kind of drifting admix of Serialism and reactions to it, some measure of atonality, perhaps including appropriations of or allusions to such things as non-Modernist song-forms, folk-ish stylings, etc., even Jazz, even Rock, perhaps including experimentation with electronics, and so on.

This passing sense of general familiarity is, though, successfully tempered with some pleasing detail revealed upon closer inspection. Careful listening draws one into the many intimate scenes which Fafchamps faithfully sets up; which might be comprised of delicate, lacy piano, beautifully trickling onto soft sheets of burgeoning pastoral woodwind, or pillowy, near-comic flights of gymnastic brassy commotion over brooding, malevolent sub-bass. Elsewhere, there are scurrying noises in the undulating undergrowth – the tortured strings of a cello, a viola, a violin. Some passages approach the world of drone music, in being entirely flattened, seemingly mutely ticking, counting out time. Indeed, instantaneous, savage cuts are made to some of these, wherein the listener is brutally thrown back by loud, vertiginous walls of sound. The best of these avoids the simple charge of staged melodramatic ambush, instead creating genuine, intelligent shock and real power. Such shifts confer a healthy dose of dynamism upon the enterprise as a whole, in fact; and this basic to and fro is a key motif of the album itself and perhaps its strongest feature in terms of composition.

Soloists and solo sections shine best overall, in my view. Spotlighted instruments are convincingly stress-tested, and there is a palpable and arresting extremity of technical execution on display; putting one in mind of something like Berio’s ‘Sequenza’ series, or the way Stockhausen treats instruments in his seminal, ‘In Freundschaft’, or, perhaps more exactly, the kind of unabashed virtuosity associated with Free Jazz. Here, one assumes the use of hard-won extended techniques – dextrous double-tonguing of mouthpieces, producing delightful squawks and squeals, the extraction of forced harmonics on brass and strings alike, by over-blowing and over-bowing, respectively. The result is visceral and muscular, and, moreover, expressively human. Most notable here, to my ears, is the trombone of Alain Pire. Added to the feats referenced above, his particular instrument, for its sins, is always threatening to reference its use in comedy. It’s a bit Goons, a bit Tony Hancock; it is the orchestra’s kazoo and Swanee-whistle combined. This humorous veneer lends itself constructively and colourfully to the otherwise fairly solemn proceedings. Jean-Luc Plouvier’s piano is also worthy of mention. His tumbling, muscular arpeggios cover the whole keyboard – during a series of demonstrably physical displays, played seemingly straight from the elbow, maybe the shoulder, with wilful abandon. Here, such bombast is decidedly refreshing.

According to the extensive sleeve-notes, there is some grander plan at work here; in the form of a conceptual system, devised by Fafchamps, which underpins and guides decisions that he made as composer, and which is an integral part of his wider message. This takes its cue from Sufi mysticism, Fafchamps explains, specifically from the 28 letter Arabic alphabet, formed, in turn, of numerical conceits derived from it. I confess both to a complete ignorance about such things and to a disconnection with exactly how these apply to the music itself. Perhaps, in the end, this is no bad thing. Certainly, it is no impediment to appreciation.

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