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Peter G. R. Wells

The Recorder in Contemporary Irish Music:

Crow (1999) by Benjamin Dwyer
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equipment that such a view is now seriously outmoded and the use of electronics in recorder composition is something which is not only important, but capable of great power and even beauty. In Crowthe electronics are relatively straightforward; a prerecorded tape part against which the recorder part is set, and plain amplification of the recorder sound.

The Tape part of the work was created first and the recorder part written partly as a response to it. The very nature of a prerecorded tape part throws up some very interesting challenges for the performer. While it is an inevitable consequence of live music that no two performances are ever the same, a prerecorded tape remains unchanged every time it is played, and this dichotomy presents a powerful metaphor for struggle; the recorder part must fit with the tape part, and yet at the same time the live musician has the desire to play with a certain natural flexibility, while the unyielding tape remains completely rigid. The balance, far from forcing the recorder player to become a mere mechanoid, presents opportunities to interact with the tape differently in each performance. At the same time (especially in the second section) the percussive gun shot noises in the tape part indicate an unyielding change of the musical material from one box to the next, while the content of the boxes remains as a flexible, quasi-improvisational, material.

The tape part consists of a variety of synthesised and natural sound sources, manipulated to vary pitch and length, and to create multiple layers of the various sounds. The opening sections are underscored by a continuous low noise made from a guitar sample, manipulated by pitch adjustment and multi-layered, resulting in a continuous low presence with something of a menacing quality. This underlying noise serves to tie together the opening sections and provide a unifying foundation for the several phrases of material in the recorder part. Other sound sources in the tape part include struck piano string and snare drum sounds; chimes and tam-tam samples from computer generated sources; breathing sounds; a 17th century Italian harp with voice sample, and voices recorded with text. This use not only of bits of the Dowland song in its original (sung) form, and ritualistic repetitions of Latin text6, but also of breathing sounds adds a degree of unity with the vocalisations that occur in the recorder part and reflect, on another level, the frequent references to voices in the poems; whether these be voices heard by Crow, the voice of God, or Crow's own attempts to speak or sing.

In the second half of the work, after the climactic outburst, the mood changes markedly. The extremes of struggle and violence are no longer apparent and the overall feel begins as one of serenity (or bleakness, depending on your outlook) and the removal of the, until now continuous, low noise comes as something of a relief. However, it is in this latter section that the breathing noises are used to their fullest extent and their overtly sexual nature is impossible to ignore.7 The juxtaposition of this overt sexuality in the tape part with the very quiet and intensely controlled melodic line in the recorder creates a section of tremendous power. This is only compounded by the fact that the use of the voice in a quasiorganum lends the recorder part religious overtones quite at variance with the tape part and is, of course, intended to bring about discomfort in the listener.


The general dynamic level of much of the first half of "Crow" is loud. The range of dynamics required in the recorder part extends from pppp to ffff with a fortissimo possible requirement at the climax. There are also frequent requirements for sub ff or sub pp as well as a range of sfz and fp markings. In addition many sections rely on a constant and rapid change of dynamic colours, as can be seen in Ex. 1 above. All of this is achieved through the use of flexible amplification as well as the more standard variations of articulation. In performance, the present writer has used a conventional vocal microphone mounted on a boom stand and set at a distance of about 10" away from the recorder, at the height of the labium. This is fed directly into the same console as the tape part and both are then relayed through the PA system. By control of the space between the labium and the microphone, the conventional range of dynamics available can be greatly widened. Additionally, by placing the labium of the recorder very close to, or even on, the microphone and using strong articulation, a remarkable range of sfz effects is available, and these can be made into fp and sfp gestures by use of articulation combined with rapid pulling away from the microphone. The dramatic performance aspect of this type of microphone use is an additional (and, at first, unexpected) bonus.

"Crow" is not a comfortable work for an audience, but neither the composer, nor the performer should feel in any way obliged to make allowances for the audience in this regard. Has it not always been one of the goals of new art (not only music) to challenge, even to unsettle, an audience? This performer is proud to be able to claim that he has achieved marked physical reaction in performances of this work. These have ranged from startled shock at the completely unprepared explosive opening, through obvious discomfort about the more blatant sexual references, even to tears (once). It is the firm belief of this writer that music which is capable of inducing strong reactions (maybe negative at first, but virtually always turning to positive, with understanding) is not only rare today, but even rarer amongst works for recorder, and such pieces deserve all the exposure that they can be given. As with all art, what may shock today won't shock at all in a few years time. We can only enjoy the power of the effect while we can.

6 The Latin texts are verses from the Requiem Mass. The first, taken from the Sequence, is "Quantus tremor est futurus I Quando judex est venturus I Cuncta stricte discus surus" with three voices

repeating the text, whispered in close canon. The second text is an improvised recitation of the Libera me section, which has then been reversed and layered with a guitar sample to create a noncromprehensible, but recognisably ritualistic text. Dwyer, ibid p157

7 The frequency of sexual references in the poetry of Ted Hughes in general, and of the 'Crow' poems in particular is itself a large and fascinating topic, not without its own sense of discomfort.

Peter Wells
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