Review: Red Note & Griffyn Ensemble at Sound festival

First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2015

On paper it could have worked. Sound is an Aberdeenshire contemporary music festival with a bent for themes of landscape and northernness. This year’s opening concert paired Scotland’s new music outfit Red Note with an Australian counterpart called Griffyn Ensemble. Red Note played Northern Skies — a new piece by Scottish/Norwegian composer James Clapperton — while Griffyn played the UK premiere of Urmas Sisask’s Southern Sky. Both works contemplate the nature of wide horizons and wild environments.

So far, so compatible. The problem was the Sisask piece: a long and banal exploration of constellation systems visible from the southern hemisphere. Sisask is an Estonian astronomer and composer who runs a musical observatory near the Gulf of Finland and whose inspiration for Southern Sky came from a trip to Mount Stromlo Observatory near Canberra. The Australian premiere took place in that building after it had been destroyed by bush fires in 2003 — a performance that surely had some potency. Here the flimsy material was never going to sustain an hour. A heavy-voiced soprano intoned quasi-exotic lines over sparkly textures and at one point sang earnestly into the flank of a harp. Elsewhere a flute and clarinet exchanged gurgling lines while voice-over narration explained exactly how this invoked galaxies and dark matter. Griffyn’s delivery was diligent and dismally po-faced.

But the evening’s northern component was worlds away. Clapperton’s four-part piece muses sensitively on the brutal beauty of northern Norway, Iceland and Russia before culminating with a nostalgia-tinged movement flecked with Strathspey rhythms from his native Aberdeenshire. Textures are luminous and unfussy. Clapperton isn’t shy of a well-signposted chord sequence but the simplicity of his means — save the thwacking of an extraneous snare drum — is spacious and evocative. Red Note’s performance had poise, warmth and intensity.