Tansy Davies’s music jolts and pulses. Listening to it is a bit like being on a train that can bump suddenly from racing velocity to slowness, and that can somehow rattle along in a somewhat dislocated fashion at several different speeds at the same time. Meanwhile, the view out of the window will be changing. You may think you see a city crossroads at night - people rushing, people still, warm air thumping from a club doorway, the gleam of a streetlamp on the wing of a car. But blink and the scene shifts. It’s a medieval landscape, maybe retouched in fluorescent colours. Or, as the station turns to Bach, it’s Baroque. Or it’s a sacred space, eastern or western, ancient or modern, with chant rising.
Scenes and travel may say something of what this music is about, but the composer’s own metaphors come most often from architecture, and especially from the buildings of Zaha Hadid. Davies’s trumpet concerto Spiral House (2004) and short orchestral piece Tilting (2005) are explicit responses to Hadid’s designs. The orchestra in Tilting, she says, ‘is like a very large building with its own natural distortions’. As an architect of time, she makes her structures with small modules - groups of notes and rhythmic figures, scored in particular and often unusual ways - that are repeated, brick by brick, but with bendings as these musical units respond to the tensions and strains acting on them, and create more tensions and strains for the future.
It is a way of thinking that descends from Stravinsky by way of Louis Andriessen. With those composers, too, Davies shares the knack of creating effective collisions and collusions between classical and popular elements. A contemporary-music ensemble, with Birtwistle and Ligeti in its bones, thrums with amplified sounds and emphatic syncopations; a solo saxophone - in Iris (2004), one of this composer’s richest scores - plays a concerto role out of a steamy history in jazz and rock.
© Paul Griffiths