Music for Music: Neil T. Smith
Neil T. Smith: Stop Motion Music
By Dan Ursini
The music of young Scottish composer Neil Tòmas Smith is ideal for immersive listening—whether it is one of his fearless orchestral works like “Perihelion”—
or any of the several tracks on his debut release, Stop Motion Music. As he recently told The Scotsman, “I like to take an idea for a piece, experiment long and hard with it and take it as far as I can.” That sense of investigation imbues his music. He brings the listener along as he pushes limits of many sorts.
The title piece is a 26-minute work exploring the sounds of vibraphone and flute. The music is structured around tensions that deepen, without any resolution. As they dissipate, the next set of tensions begin. As such, the music is divided into four sections. Small speakers were placed inside the steel tubes of Delia Stevens’s vibraphone—a transforming decision. This produces a lustrous sound with a lasting metallic shiver that gives the piece a compelling sonic identity. Stevens plays harmonies of compelling ambiguity, which are ideal for music that is both beguiling and unnerving.
Both here and elsewhere, Smith enacts a troubled consciousness. When needed, he reaches outside tonality to tell the whole story. His strange melodies are brilliantly conveyed by the multi-tracked flutes of Carla Rees. She is the UK’s leading voice on the alto flute. On this track, she plays an instrument with six extra keys, designed by Dutch flute maker Eva Kingma. This allows for an expanded range of quarter tones. The interplay between Rees’s keenly passionate playing and Stevens’s whirlpools of percussive sound, is captivating. This music is daring and demanding.
“Progressions of Memory” is an intriguing evocation of the human memory and its chameleon-like capacity to both conceal and reveal the truth of our experience. Smith composed this solo work for Rees, this time on the baroque flute. The music references a Handel flute sonata but takes off in fresh directions. The idea of the sonata fades and sharpens in the music—as can happen in memory. Rees is incredibly good, and the piece as a whole, filled with surprising turns, is fully absorbing.
About “The Music Lesson,” Smith remarked, “I am really interested in the relationship between music and text and, more specifically, new ways of trying to think of this relationship. It’s rare these days that I will feel the urge to set a poem from beginning to end. I feel that leads to a lot of music that is illustrative, without solid musical structure.”
In fact, “The Music Lesson” goes well beyond that. Smith employs both music and speech to evoke the stream of consciousness of a young harp student talking to herself as she practices her instrument. Vague, disturbing memories of possible sexual abuse by her teacher obliquely surface in her introspections. The instrumental music enacts the emotional context of her story. It is comprised of knotted fragments of musical ideas, repeated in various sequences. They share the same overly stressed energy, but there is no cohering focus. Both the musical and spoken word segments are performed by the expansively talented Esther Swift, harpist and vocalist. It is a work of considerable moral gravity.
The two remaining tracks on Stop Motion Music both demonstrate that Smith has the artistic nerve needed to make, and stick with, hard choices.
“Manual” is a work for two cellos. Musicians Justyna Jablonska and Duncan Strachan explore ways to produce sounds with their cellos—once the bow has been set aside. Especially since it relies on considerable gestural activity, “Manual” is a very experimental work.
“Scaffold for Simon” may well bewilder the unprepared listener. Throughout this eight-minute composition, drummer Simon Roth shifts between three dramatically different grooves, each in a different tempo. Smith explained that “the particulars of these grooves are not specified by me but are left open for the player to choose as they see fit. The score indicates when to play each groove so that they are heard in different combinations and situations. Above all, I wanted to explore how a piece could be built from sudden and uninterrupted changes of tempo.” Let me add that this is a solo work, and that Roth plays only during intervals written into the score. Otherwise, there is significant silence. Even more, in order to play correctly, Roth needs to keep all three grooves happening in his mind in real time. Given these challenges, it is amazing that Roth not only plays exceptionally well, he also remains quite relaxed.
As Stop Motion Music demonstrates, Neil Tòmas Smith is a composer with the talent, energy, and courage to push against all kinds of musical boundaries as he develops a truly singular voice.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983). His play, Sandbar Flatland, directed by John Malkovich, was produced in 1978 during the dawn of the legendary Off-Loop Theater scene in Chicago. In 1990 Chicago Magazine selected it as one of the ten best shows of the preceding 25 years. Beyond this, Ursini worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at such Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication. In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, has had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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