Watery dreamscapes and dark, uncanny energies combine in Soul Canoe, the culmination of Davies’s time as Composer-in-Residence at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
Commissioned by the Concertgebouw and scored for an ensemble of ten players, Soul Canoe was premiered in May by the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble conducted by Tom Goff. Davies’s inspiration for the 20-minute work was twofold: visiting an exhibition of the art and artefacts of Oceania, a Wuramon (or ‘Soul Canoe’ made by the Asmat people of West Papua) rekindled for her memories of an old dream of Amsterdam, long before she had ever been there, its canals eerily filled with empty barges.
Electric guitar cuts a lonely figure through much of the atmospheric four-movement work, obsessively returning to two ominous blues-tinged idées fixes. Meanwhile, an accordion provides growling bass pedals and long, swelling, harmonies. The iridescent first movement repeatedly circles around itself – pulsating and flickering – whilst similar looping processes play out in the second movement, which riffs on some searingly elemental material from Davies’s 2018 chamber opera Cave. The third, and longest, movement sees mournful flugelhorn and guitar melodies snagging behind nervous web-like textures.
The striking last movement contains the work’s simplest but in many ways most mysterious music. Imbued with a lucid calm, the pared-back rhythmic writing and hushed dynamics seem to denote an opening out of some kind. It’s a luminous and compelling conclusion, with wind instruments tracing sinuous, echoing patterns that glide over a smooth but fast-moving soundstream.
Soul Canoe was co-commissioned by the Red Note Ensemble and Sound Scotland, who will present its UK premiere in Aberdeen on 1 November. A German premiere, by long-standing Davies supporter Konstantia Gourzi and her ensemble oktopus, follows in February at Munich’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater.