Music by Lisa Illean and Cassandra Miller features on the latest album from Explore Ensemble, released on 26 May by Huddersfield Contemporary Records and distributed by NMC. The disc features the first commercial recording of Illean’s Weather a Rare Blue, for piano, ensemble, and pre-recorded sounds, as well as Miller’s 18-minute ensemble work Perfect Offering for flute, clarinet, piano, and string quartet. It is available to stream here and purchase on CD here.

Like several of Illean’s pieces, Weather a Rare Blue draws on contemporary visual art. Dan Graham’s pavilion Double Exposure, installed in the gardens of Serralves Park, Porto, provides one creative impetus. Graham’s installation plays fixity against contingency: the semblance of a photographic image is disturbed by the changeable character of the environment, landscape, and viewer. Illean’s title is drawn from a poem by Anne Stevenson: “Rain’s rained weather a rare blue, so you can see the thinness in it.”

The 11-minute work, cast in 11 short movements, calls for an unconventional preparation of the violin, viola, and cello. The score details how players should place a cork with two grooves cut in it over certain strings. The prepared strings produce what Illean calls "…a beguilingly complex sound when played at a low dynamic, with a slow bow, light pressure, and all of the hairs of the bow on the string. Many different overtones (and combinations of these) are possible, especially when the bow is placed quite close to the preparation…The sound should be harmonically rich but never harsh." Weather a Rare Blue was premiered by Explore Ensemble in 2018 at Kings Place.

The group have also performed Illean’s trio février and A through-grown earth, with soprano Juliet Fraser, and were celebrated in 2021/22 when they were awarded the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung Ensemble Prize.

Alex Ross described Miller’s Perfect Offering, which gives the album its name, as “extraordinarily beautiful”. Miller first began drafting the 18-minute piece during a period of convalescence, which also overlapped with the early days of lockdown. She recalls,

At that time, I had the quote in my head ‘ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering’ (Leonard Cohen), and the piece began to be about bells somehow—how they swing, and how they mark passing time. The piece is not at all about Leonard Cohen, but with this mantra-like quote in mind, the process of composing became a meditation on the imperfect perfection of this tiring body and all the uselessness of plans.

Perfect Offering was commissioned for the Ives Ensemble by De Link, Nieuwe Muziek Tilburg, who gave the first performance in the Netherlands in 2020; Explore Ensemble gave the first performance of the revised version of the score in March 2021.