The Complex Notion of Change

US composer John Aylward here with his Celestial Forms And Stories (NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS FCR320), a suite of five related pieces of chamber music played by the Klangforum Wien ensemble.

The plan here is to create musical depictions of certain figures from Greek mythology – Daedalus, Mercury and Narcissus are three of them, plus there’s one at the end for Ananke who was more by way of being a “primordial deity” and a personification of the notions of Necessity and Inevitability. There’s even a musical duo for ‘Ephemera’, who as far as I know wasn’t a character in Greek myth but a way of expressing transient information of no lasting significance. Lest we accuse Aylward of reinventing the Planets Suite, he’s attempting a more layered intellectual exercise – his ideas derive from the writings of Italo Calvino, the excellent Italian writer, specifically his analysis of the writings of Ovid in the Metamorphoses, and (I suppose) what this means for story-telling in general. Calvino is a literary hero to me, one I put in a seraglio with Umberto Eco and Dino Buzatti, and a fiction writer who seems capable of effortlessly turning the form of any story inside-out and upside-down, while remaining very entertaining, witty, and eminently readable.

John Aylward’s takeaway has been something to do with “elementary properties” – perhaps a way of thinking about literary archetypes – and it’s this process that has fed into his music. It’s evident that there’s a lot of “musical information” packed into these dense musical episodes, fast-moving too, and at 54:01 mins of listening there’s a lot for the thirsty brain to drink in. If he’s attempting to tell new stories about the Greek myths, or “reanimate” them as is claimed, this aspect may have simply passed me by, or I’m simply not able to follow them in the abstruse twists and turns of his very non-linear and disjunctive sequences of notes. The notes praise his distancing technique, putting the listener “at several steps of remove from the original source of inspiration”, meaning what we’re absorbing is Aylward’s reading of Ovid filtered by way of Calvino (and presumably recast to some degree by the efforts of the excellent musicians here when they interpret his scores). But it all leaves me mostly cold; no denying the force of his intellect, or Aylward’s composerly skills, but all five of the pieces just sound too similar to one another, characterised by the same flourishes – over-elaborated woodwind runs and astringent string stabs. I’m not feeling the engagement with the subject matter, in other words, and to me it’s more like a formal exercise for rehearsing a series of rather stilted musical phrases. From 9th February 2022.