sound festival 2019 review: The Yellow Wallpaper

Aden Mazur: conductor
Jillian Bain Christie: soprano and creative artwork
Jeremy Coleman: piano
Guera Crockett: violin
Alison MacDonald: cello
Peter Ney: percussion
Joanna Nicholson: clarinets
Catherine O'Rourke: flute
Angela Margaret Main: performance artist

Today’s concert, supported by the University of Aberdeen Development Trust’s Student Experience Fund along with Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding Programme, featured two new works each by PhD composition students Anna McClure and Calum Carswell. The concert was introduced by Dr Phillip Cooke, currently the Head of the Department of Music at Aberdeen University. Dr Cooke also acted as the chairman of the post-concert discussion with the two composers.

There was a special theme that ran through the entire concert – different kinds of mental problems. The final work in the concert, Anna McClure’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which lent its title to the whole concert, dealt with the subject of Post Partum Psychosis (APP). This is a problem suffered by a small number of women who, after giving birth, become prey to acute depression as well as hallucinations and other schizophrenia-like symptoms. Before the performance of Anna McClure’s piece we were given a short but very illuminating talk on the subject along with an appeal for support from Action on Postpartum Psychosis. I will include information on this at the conclusion of this review.

Anna McClure’s first piece, The Unknown Shore, which opened the concert, was the composer’s response to her father’s diagnosis of dementia. In the first of Calum Carswell’s pieces, Curious Disposition, he explores in music his own diagnosis with autism and in his second work, Memoriam he deals with the complexities of the bipolar mind. This covers a wide range of people in this country. According to the internet, over 46% of adults will experience some form of mental problems at some time in their lives, not including dementia, so this concert dealt with some very important issues.

Anna McClure’s The Unknown Shore presented settings of four different poems. In the first, ‘The Darkness Calls’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Anna scored for soprano (Jillian Bain Christie) with piano (Jeremy Coleman) and clarinet (Joanna Nicholson). An extensive introduction for piano and clarinet sounding softly coloured and rather beautiful led into a powerful and clear vocal performance by Jillian Bain Christie. The second song, a setting of ‘The Unknown Shore’ by the American poet Elizabeth Clark Hardy (1849 – 1929) was a delightful blend of voice and clarinet without piano. ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas has a famous setting by Stravinsky in which he uses an unusual serial composition technique using not twelve but only five notes in his tone row. Anna McClure used her own serial technique in this piece and I would call it post-serialism because there was still a certain level of ‘romantic’ expression in the music used here to express anger. The three performers—voice, clarinet and piano—delivered that idea particularly well. The final song in this cycle was ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. There was still a certain sense of serial composition here but the blend of voice, piano and clarinet were beautifully delicately coloured. I must congratulate Joanna Nicholson here for her exceptionally expressive playing, but with Joanna you would expect nothing less. Did the performers really need a conductor for this music? I don’t know but if so, then Aden Mazur did really well.

In Curious Disposition by Calum Carswell, the trio of flute (Catherine O’Rourke) cello (Alison MacDonald) and piano (Jeremy Coleman) did not use a conductor. This was a rather fine chamber work. The piano established the rhythm which was paramount in this work which also used elements of serialism. Flute and cello took over the limelight from the piano. The music was pointed and angular but I liked the way that there was a proper sense of resolution at the conclusion. I also liked the rhythmic pulse that sustained the music firmly throughout.

There were three sections in Carswell’s Memoriam. Rhythm dominated the outer sections and though somewhat atonal, melody ruled the central section. These were settings for voice and piano.

The Yellow Wallpaper was an amazingly rich and expressive piece based on a short story dealing with a woman’s experience of Post Partum Psychosis in which she imagines another woman behind the yellow wallpaper in her hospital room. It included all the listed performers with clarinet and, one of my favorite sounds, bass clarinet, played by Joanna Nicholson. Guera Crockett’s violin stood out, occasionally matching the marvellous performance of ace percussionist Peter Ney on vibraphone and other smaller instruments. Jillian Bain Christie captured the drama of the performance on an almost operatic scale and of course performance artist Angela Margaret Main creating dancing shadows behind the yellow wallpaper screen designed by Jillian Bain Christie was paramount. At the end of the piece, Angela tore her way through the screen. Was this a representation of birth? It was fascinating and also a little bit alarming as probably birth is for women in real life?

You can donate to Action on Post Partum Psychosis online or donate £10 by texting APPY001 to 70191.

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