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Working the 9s: Chamber Music From Christopher Gordon

Christopher Gordon: Chamber Music

Magic Fire Ensemble

Magic Fire Music 007

Disc One: 15 tracks – 65:57

Disc Two: 8 tracks – 56:50


Performance: ****/****

Australian composer Christopher Gordon is known for his many period film scores. Many do not get as much attention here in the states as they perhaps should. Film music fans will certainly want to track down his work on Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) at the very least, but this new release of a variety of his chamber music will also be a great place to experience the composer’s work. The album is a blend of longer suite-like pieces, and a variety of shorter chamber works for various combinations of instruments. The music is overall a blend of Neo-Romanticism with some Post-minimalist underpinnings in accessible contemporary musical language.

This project began back in 2016 and the first piece on this 2-disc set, Four for Eleven, was recorded then. The piece had its gestation across several chamber expressions of smaller works and ideas Gordon worked on between 1999 and 2007. The four-movement work is for a chamber ensemble of winds and strings. The music has a great deal of rhythmic drive and a post-minimalist style that makes it a delightfully engaging opener to disc one. Against the pulsing tonal harmonies, beautiful lyrical lines will emerge to captivate the listener. Gordon notes that the reworking of these pieces into this new little suite of sorts led him to begin Freefall, which brings disc 2 to a close. The 25-minute work was composed over the course of 2 weeks in 2007.

Disc one features several single-movement works for different sound combinations. Road Rage (1998) is a rather intense brief duo for violin and viola. It is followed by a one-movement string quartet, There Was A Time (2010) which is a very intimate, somewhat romantic piece. Written for harp in May 2021 for Louise Johnson, who performs it here, Thought Bubbles is a compact work of 4-movements. The music has a rather enchanting quality and sort of extrapolates ideas from the later work for 8 harps, Dust which closes off this album. Both are rather fascinating timbral explorations of the instrument. The solo work has plenty of technical requirements but also a quite reflective third and fourth movement. The latter work is an experimentation to liberate music from bar lines. The 2012 work can be for any number of harps with each one determining their own durations of what is on the page. It is a rather intriguing idea and the removal of bar lines is one that Gordon comes at in several of the other works on this release. Composed as a companion to Dust, Saltare Solaris (2016) provides more opportunity to explore the unusual combination of 8 harps and was part of Gordon’s initial envisioning for a chamber music release. The other pieces in the set are extra icing on the cake. Cabin Fever (2020) was essentially something to keep him busy as things began to shut down. Taking an earlier sketch, he crafted this brief piano piece with a sort of perpetual motion feel as it churns forward with nervous energy before taking a moment to muse. A common theoretical approach Gordon uses is to develop his work along an enneatonic scale (i.e, one based on 9 notes) which lends its own extra extension of motives in the music. The Two Pieces for Low Brass and Piano feature some gorgeous lyrical writing in the first number, “On Reflection”, and then a return to the more manic energy heard in other pieces here in “Go For Broke”. The music also saw life in the composer’s 2018 ballet The Happy Prince.

Emerging from previous sketches and completed music, disc two kicks off with two pieces for solo brass. Both A Short Life (for bass trombone and piano) and Look Away (for ophicleide) have their roots in the music for Freefall. Fancy Number (2006) was envisioned as a work for flute and chamber orchestra but is recorded here with one to a part. It too explores Gordon’s use of an enneatonic scale to underpin the music with a palindromic form as its outline. Composed across a few months in 2020-21, Outliers is a three-movement work for saxophone quintet (though it began life as a brass piece). The Path Ahead (1985) also began as a brass work but evolved into this string trio version in 1997. It precedes the larger Freefall piece.

Most of the recordings were made in 2021 against the unfolding and changing dynamics of a pandemic which makes this release even more special. The musicians of the Magic Fire Ensemble bring a great deal of excitement and energy to their performances that feel filled with a renewed sense of joy. While so many of these pieces seem to have tendrils across one another in conception, where each goes is in and of itself a fascinating journey. The different timbral shifts in the music make for a rather fascinating listen with each piece providing different avenues to explore Gordon’s unique take on 9-note composition and how specific motivic ideas can be transformed. It makes for a quite engaging couple of hours of music of a concept album that is almost like a large-scale meditation on variation technique through orchestral color. The ideas all take off in interesting ways. The release features a stunning cover image. Note that the discs are in cardboard sleeves within the packaging here.


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