Waley-Cohen(s): Permutations

Permutations Unveil 
Compositions by Freya Waley-Cohen
Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin
Signum Classics SIGCD496. 27’46

This short recording is of two pieces by composer Freya Waley-Cohen, written for her older sister, the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. The key work, Permutations (c18′), is described as a “roaming performance artwork”. It has a fascinating compositional background. It was commissioned as part of Aldeburgh Festival’s 2017 season and composed during a residency at Aldeburgh and is intended as an exploration of the relationship between architecture and music.

Permutations consists of six independent lines of solo violin music, all pre-recorded by Tamsin Waley-Cohen, and replayed within an architectural setting designed by Finbarr O’Dempsey & Andrew Skulina. Both the music and its setting were planned simultaneously during the Aldeburgh residency, with each acting as a muse for the other. The architectural setting has six flexible and adaptable enclosures, one for each of the six violin parts. A central space allows all six violin lines to be heard in balance, or the listener could move around, and adjust the acoustics of the space to hear various combinations of the six contrapuntal lines.

Obviously intended to be experienced ‘live’, any recording can only partially recreate the physical experience of the architectural space. All six violin parts are heard simultaneously, at the same volume, without the listener having any control of the balance or detail of the complex contrapuntal lines. And complex contrapuntal lines there are aplenty. This is definitely not some ambiguous and neutral sound-scape of the ‘lift-music’ kind, but an impressively well-developed six-part musical composition of intense counterpoint. It is based on one of the most complex examples of counterpoint, Beethoven’s Große Fuge, written in 1825 as the final movement of a Quartet, but later floated off as a massive independent movement. It has been described as “the most problematic single work in Beethoven’s output and … doubtless in the entire literature of music“. The eight note fugue subject rearranges the six chromatic notes between E and A into a tortuously angular pattern of climbing chromatic notes separated alternatively into gaps of a minor 6th and semitones.

Freya Waley-Cohen noticed that the intervals between the notes are in the form of a palindrome, and based the structure of her piece around that structure. It will probably take several listens before you can begin to grasp the character of the six separate musical lines, but repeated listening is essential to understanding and appreciating the extraordinary musical structure.

As if writing a piece for the equivalent of six violins was not complicated enough, Freya Waley-Cohen also composed two other pieces while creating Permutations. One of them, Unveil (c10′), for solo violin, is also included on this recording. Using the same theme as Permutations, together with extracts from the six characters portrayed, Unveil also includes transcriptions from recordings of Freya testing the acoustic space by improvising on the violin. As with the six violin lines of Permutationsit makes severe demands on the violin soloists technicque, which Tamsin Waley-Cohen takes in her stride.

Given the short length of this recording, it is a shame that the other piece was not included as well. More information about this exciting project can be found here and here.

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