On 7 June NMC released arcing, stilling, bending, gathering – a portrait of Lisa Illean’s music featuring orchestral, ensemble and chamber works by the Australian composer. The four pieces on the disc are performed by Aura Go, the Australian National Academy of Music, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with David Robertson, GBSR Duo, David Zucchi, Michael Acker of the Experimentalstudio des SWR, Juliet Fraser, and Explore Ensemble. Listen to arcing, stilling, bending, gathering here.

arcing, stilling, bending, gathering – a 19-minute piece for 12 strings, piano, and pre-recorded sounds (by Tilman Robinson) – opens sparsely and quietly. Glacial chords and floating tapestries of sound mingle, with a constantly shifting sense of focus. The ensemble of 12 strings is arranged into three string quartets: two use the standard lineup, but the third consists of double bass and violins/viola that use unique non-tempered tunings. Likewise, Illean calls the pianist to strum the open strings of a scordatura guitar. 

A film exploring the creation of the piece, with contributions from Illean, is available to watch here. It is partly inspired by Illean’s recollection of two films by Sergei Eisenstein, in which fleeting reflections appear on shop windows; Illean’s music elaborates these ideas of superimposed transparent layers that shift, blur and transform.

Land’s End for chamber orchestra received its first performance in 2016 from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. The 11-minute piece is inspired by the drawings of Vija Celmins, Illean has said, “…particularly those that use the ocean surface as the framework for an exploration in mark-making with incremental grades of graphite. In such work, surfaces act as forms through which subtle change can be perceived and felt.”

Tiding II (silentium) was premiered in 2021 by Trio Accanto and the SWR Experimental Studio at the Donaueschinger Musiktage. The 17-minute work is part of a series exploring elemental patterns. Like its predecessor Tiding (2021) for solo electric guitar, recently recorded by Yaron Deutsch – it is also inspired by the work of artist Christiane Baumgartner – in particular her 2013 woodcut Deep Water.

“To my mind” Illean writes, “sheets of electronic sound and sustained tones resemble the revolving light from a lighthouse raking the ocean’s surface…Interwoven layers surface and recede in a delicate balance. Transience – in both the production and perception of sound – has always moved me.” It received its UK premiere at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November 2023 from GBSR Duo and David Zucchi, who recorded the piece for this release.

 

A through-grown earth is a five-part setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins for soprano and ensemble. The 15-minute work takes as its prompt the observed patterns of tapestry in the natural world — foliations in wood or stone, or the ‘lashtender combs’ of ash trees — that occur frequently Hopkins’ poems. Pre-recorded sounds – created from recordings of retuned zithers - d sound material is composed of retuned microtonal zithers — are interwoven with lines for voice, bass flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello; the recorded version received its world premiere in November 2022 from Fraser and Explore Ensemble at Kings Place.

The Arts Desk praised Illean’s “exquisite” music:

…if you’re not drawn in after a few minutes of Illean’s arcing, stilling, bending, gathering, you’ve no soul. It’s extraordinary stuff, four movements scored for piano, solo violin, electronics and a chamber ensemble split into four separate groups…the music’s different layers variously, slowly overlap and occlude one another. Repeated listening throws up a wealth of colour and detail, my favourite being a spellbinding harp entry…Land’s End comes as an intoxicating jolt…Illean’s colours are brighter and more clearly defined here, though the voice is recognisably the same. As with the other works, the recording has incredible presence. Dissonant wind chords suggest bird calls, heard against seismic basso rumblings and eerie string chords. It’s all compelling, and already on my provisional ‘best of 2024’ list.

The album was selected by Bandcamp for the ‘best contemporary classical music’ roundup for June 2024.

Illean has a striking feel for the elusive, writing music that’s not so much between states as finding exacting clarity in details that initially escape our notice…On the title piece the piano and the violin float and ripple through delicate sheets of wavering, unstable sonic gauze…Its title suggests different motions that distinguish all of the attractively elusive sounds featured here. A similar effect is presented on “Tiding II”…patiently unfolding constellations of sound and texture, like objects moving through a gravity-free atmosphere. Melodic fragments, harmonic swells, and rhythmic drift seem to cycle through the pieces randomly, but there’s a sharp design inside Illean’s writing that makes it all feel like natural phenomenon.  

Bandcamp, June 2024