Reviews | Tansy Davies | Composer

Reviews for Nature

Just one piece in the programme showed us a composer luxuriating in notes... A bewitching piece, and brilliantly played.
Nature was an alternately quirky and poetic single movement concerto for piano solo and a small but tellingly utilized ensemble of 10 players… Funky rhythmic figures, characteristically askew, drove frenetically ecstatic sections, whilst an unsettling, nervous tension permeated the quieter more measured passages deftly woven into the texture... Davies chops and layers her material with precision and imagination. Rhythmically demanding, sumptuously scored… Nature is a technically accomplished and satisfying piece. Davies succeeded in attuning the venerable form of the piano concerto entirely to her own enjoyably idiosyncratic voice, with magical and delightfully unpredictable results.
...Tansy Davies' piano concerto, Nature, remarkable for reconfiguring the relationship between soloist (a brilliant Huw Watkins) and ensemble. Oscillating between pensive and pugilistic, its orchestral textures seemed to bleed out of the solipsistic piano material, while recurring thematic worms burrowed their way under the surface, creating a powerful sense of drive.
... the piece that actually set the heart and mind in motion. It has its 'spinning’ moments too, but in this case one felt an uncanny emotional climate, as if spirits were being conjured. In her pre-concert talk Davies spoke of 'shamanistic rituals’ as an influence, and one could hear them loud and clear.
... with glistening, hyperactive solo writing and a confrontation between piano and harp, there was the real sense of a journey completed. Davies's piece seemed a model of individuality.
...the most interesting [piece] by far was Nature, a completely new piano concerto from Tansy Davies. Reviewing her Falling Angel in a BCMG concert a year or two back, I remarked on her ability to take visual impressions and transmute them into purely musical ideas and structures. And the same is true here. She talks about “the edge of a wilderness where man meets Nature or the Supernatural… living alongside vampires, swimming with sharks,”…

Reviews for LSO/Eclectica Portrait Concert

There are few composers prepared, minutes before the close of a concert devoted to their recent work, to give it some with an electric guitar. Tansy Davies, though, is one. Previously hidden behind a laptop on the St Luke's stage, she gingerly hoisted on a red and white Stratocaster, launching her 2004 work Neon into its frenzied final section.  

With its irreverent slap-bass synth and fusion of blunt textures and funk rhythms, vividly brought out by the Azalea Ensemble, Neon is in many ways typical Davies. But its extrovert character contrasted strongly with the rest of this fascinating concert, mostly drawn from the recent Troubairitz album. From the eerie world of Salt Box – reminiscent, with its unpredictable electronic track over reed organ and chamber ensemble, of a poltergeist in a village church – to the doodling profile of the Loure for solo violin (based on the Loure from Bach's third partita – both beautifully played by Aisha Orazbayeva), much of Davies's material ponders the boundary between private imagining and public utterance, its articulation hovering on the crest of the moment. The solo percussion piece, Dark Ground, performed by Joby Burgess, eschews stick-juggling mesmerism in favour of the layering of complex processes and contrasting timbres. Burgess was later joined by Janey Miller's cor anglais for Aquatic, another work whose ineffable contours quietly rearrange your ears. There is a purposeful non-virtuosity, too, both in the Troubairitz songs, and in the faux-naive ballad Greenhouses, in which the soprano (Anna Snow) must draw only the shortest of breaths to deprive the voice of power and nobility, reflecting the spiritual plight of its subject.  

Precisely crafted and yet oddly nonchalant, Davies's music is profoundly invigorating. Her willingness to take stylistic liberties remains a hallmark, but the quality of her work is reflected in its rare power to remind its listeners of their own inner freedom.

Reviews for As with Voices and with Tears

... This year they picked the prolific Tansy Davies, who chose the words of Walt Whitman for As with Voices and with Tears, a work for choir, string orchestra and electronics that used the spacious acoustic of Portsmouth Cathedral as an instrument in itself.

Whitman tells a chilling tale of a double grave for a father and son, killed side by side in combat. Davies extracted her music from this moving text using a system that assigned a different pitch to each letter of the alphabet, further moulding or sculpting the notes and enriching the harmonies into tonal clusters, so that the vocal lines are often only a semitone apart – difficult to sing but both arresting and mysterious in effect.

While bells, birdsong and footsteps murmur in and out in electronic interjections, singers and orchestra move as separate flocks on the wing, forming and reforming in large shapes that stream across the desolate landscape of the poem. The young choir sang this haunting, richly textured, mesmerising requiem with a flair and precision way beyond their years under the assured direction of Andrew Cleary in a most remarkable act of remembrance.

Reviews for Falling Angel & Iris

The double centrepiece, on either side of the interval, was a pair of brilliant works for largeish ensemble by the waifish-looking but hyper-talented Tansy Davies. Falling Angel is an ebullient response to the painting of that name by Anselm Kiefer; Iris, which I first heard at the Cheltenham Festival six years ago, is an evocation of the winged messenger goddess of the rainbow. Both are works which react to visual images, but in a way that transmutes those images into sound structures; they are the response of an intensely musical mind and an acute ear to ideas conveyed from a different part of the brain, reinterpreted and then transmitted as pure music.

Both are vivid and exciting creations. With a pen in her hand, Davies is like an over-stimulated teenager, but one who has learnt – as Cocteau so memorably put it – how far it is permissible to go too far. Her writing for brass is typical. She seems to hurl the music at them, defying them to catch it. But when they do (as of course they do, because they’re the wonderful BCMG), they discover that it is not a rough old stone but a piece of sculpture they can study and enjoy, “black and shiny”, as Davies revealingly describes the sound she wants.

But this music dances as well as shines. Its energy is infectious, achieved Stravinsky-fashion by insistent repetition, crisp rhythmic unisons and deep, sudden contrasts of perspective. Iris forms rainbow bridges (this is the composer’s description) between an antique string chorale-gone-wonky and vibrant episodes for the whole ensemble, linked by a soprano saxophone and signalled by sharp percussion strokes. The sense of space is almost tangible, the pace jolting but exhilarating. I loved both works and look forward to hearing other things by this gifted composer.

Reviews for Troubairitz CD

Tansy Davies’s neon and inside out 2 can’t help but recall Stravinsky’s 1940s commission for Woody Herrmann’s orchestra, the Ebony Concerto. There’s an idiomatic use of rich, low-pitched sounds (plenty of bassoon and bass clarinet), and insidious, catchy dance rhythms bounce away in the bass. There’s a hint of Louis Andriessen-style Euro-Minimalism too; these are pieces which really move. But there’s a satisfying darkness to Davies’s imagination; for all the foot-tapping, this is music with unsettling power and immediacy.

The main work on the disc is the recent song cycle Troubairitz - eight songs setting English translations of texts by 12th-century female troubadours, given sparse, improvisatory percussion accompaniments and sung coolly by Anna Snow, whose vibrato-free voice suits the music’s restraint perfectly. For all that Davies’s angular melodies inform us that this is 21st-century music, these songs sound archaic and timeless, as if they’re being composed on the spot.

Elsewhere we have imaginative remixes of several pieces featured on the disc – Gabriel Prokofiev’s entertaining deconstruction of neon making one appreciate how strange the work sounds in its original form. Recorded with Christopher Austin and the Azalea Ensemble.
The first disc to be devoted to Tansy Davies's music is built around Troubairitz, her 2005 settings of Derek Mahon's translations of poems by women troubadours from 12th-century Provence. The cycle is an exercise in self-restraint as much as anything, because Davies's beautifully simple vocal lines are mostly unaccompanied, with added percussion in four of the seven songs. Their austerity and expressive flexibility seem far removed from the world of Davies's instrumental writing, in which influences from rock and jazz, as well as the usual canon of late 20th-century composers, is fused into a pungent musical language distinctly her own. Neon, from 2004, is the best known of the ensemble works here, its brittle sound-world bound by a mesh of riffs and ostinatos, while Inside Out 2, from 2003, is a more pared-down labyrinth of pulses and patterns, and in 2005's Salt Box an aura of electronic sound binds the sparer instrumental textures. A final group of remixes, by Mira Calix, Gabriel Prokofiev and Rolf Wallin and others, underlines Davies's wide-ranging roots.
A constant, if sometimes subtly articulated, pulse runs through much of British composer Tansy Davies’ Troubairitz, a portrait disc on the Nonclassical imprint. While percussionists Damien Harron and Adam Clifford perform their parts with sensitivity, and are seldom asked for a flurry of activity, their omnipresent exertions have certainly earned them overtime pay. Indeed, sometimes they are required to unfold multiple simultaneous tempi. The terse punctuations that undergird ensemble works such as Neon, Inside Out, and Grind Show demonstrate Davies’ affinity for experimental jazz and pop references. Like fellow British  composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Oscar Bettison, she uses these vernacular references as a foil for the classical instrumentation and dissonant counterpoint that populate her works. Thus, listeners are apt to hear Radiohead and Matmos as much as Knussen and Andriessen serving as touchstones for these pieces. The result is a language that is pervasively energetic, at times spiky, but capable too of moments of delicate repose. The Azalea Ensemble, under the able direction of Christopher Austin, are keen interpreters of this supple and eclectic music.

Some of the most sensitively wrought pieces on the disc are its vocal selections. Again taking a cue from countrymen such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Gavin Bryars, Davies recalls early music in the title work, a song cycle based on 12th Century Provencal poems by female troubadours. Anna Snow’s voice,  deployed with sparing use of vibrato, seems ideally suited to “period informed” performance; yet she’s also able to conquer the postmodern pitch language and challenging tessitura of this work with assuredness.

Greenhouses, 
a setting of an excerpt from an email by Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist killed by Israeli forces while trying to prevent them from destroying Palestinian homes on the Gaza strip in 2003, is a thoughtful and touching piece. Davies is never heavy-handed in treating this delicate subject matter, but instead allows Corrie’s text a poignant, understated eloquence that is most affecting.
Full of energy and spiky ideas, British composer Tansy Davies blows the cobwebs off the chamber music genre, making it thoroughly contemporary. "Neon" is like a Vespa ride through downtown on a Saturday night: lots of rhythmic verve, driving motifs, iridescent colours and intriguing alleyways. "Salt Box" is a mysterious walkabout exploring aspects of the Kent shoreline with oriental-ish reed lines, insistent bass clarinet interjections, curious, scuttling electronics and a magnetic character. Utterly gripping, "Greenhouses" is a dark song about young American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by the Israeli army while defending homes in the Gaza strip ― a riveting performance by vocalist Anna Snow. The Troubadours' female counterparts, the Troubairitz, created deeply affecting songs that are given moving, melodic shape by Davies' receptive imagination. Also, five of Davies' pieces are re-imagined and remixed with contrasting approaches. Note to chamber ensembles everywhere: commission Tansy to create new works; your audiences will dig her music.
...with Tansy Davies, contemporary street life pulses through particularly strongly...Davies, you feel, is completely at home underground with hallucinogenic lights and hard-driven rhythms.  Yet she’s also a composer who shapes her notes with the adventurous timbres and clarity of contemporary music’s avant-garde...Abrasive and abrupt, it’s both classical and non-classical, infused with funk and alternative rock, and it fills this exuberant new CD.

Reviews for spine

… we were beguiled by yet another fascinating sound-world; a slow, twilit procession of bass flutes and clarinets, flecked by sinisterly beautiful highlights of cimbalom, harp and percussion. 

Reviews for Grind Show

Tansy Davies' Grind Show (electric), another Integra commission, proved grippingly communicative. Solo flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and Coccioli's electronic tapestry painted a tawdry, sinister, quietly manic scenario before an exhaustedly depressed ending.
...Tansy Davies' deliciously sleazy grind show (electric), its live foreground and electronic background conveying an almost visual 
panorama.
The ever reliable Tansy Davies provided the third piece of the evening. Her 2006 Integra commission Grind Show picked up the slack of the previous with its tight conception inspired by a Goya piece where she superimposes two scenes/musics over each other in a shadowing, discursive effect. The performance oscillated between the night music and the humorous and nervy dances on the surface, playing foreground and background off in a compelling exchange. The piece is tightly conceived and very well executed, and it was performed here with sharpness and intelligence.
The concert ended with a welcome jolt of energy: Tansy Davies's grind show (electric), which pitted an imaginary indoor human scene of a dance hall against the rainy outdoors portrayed in the electronics. But was the human scene any lighter than the outdoor one? Davies's razor-sharp musical images leave an ambiguous aftertaste, which is why they're so fascinating.

Reviews for neon

Tansy Davies's neon evokes tawdry urbanity in music of dangerous vibrancy.
Tansy Davies neon - a gloriously offbeat scherzo made from “distressed” materials.
Tansy Davies's neon is the most striking of the pieces, lucidly structured with its frieze-like series of vivid musical events each generated by a different rhythmic figure or process.
This is Stravinsky for the club generation, modernist collage built from twisted funk riffs; deceptively complex music that repays repeated listening.

Reviews for Falling Angel

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group chalked up yet another "Sound Investment" triumph on Saturday, when its latest commission in this scheme which allows rank-and-file supporters to buy a stake in new works scored a huge hit.

Falling Angel by Tansy Davies is scored for only 17 players, but the impact of its sound-palette makes them seem at least double that number.  There is so much colourful activity within this 21-minute piece, varying combinations of instruments creating tensions and resolutions, that resources seem infinite.

The inspiration comes from the painting Falling Angel by German artist Anselm Kiefer, and the Falling Angel in this score seems to be an electronic keyboard set to alleged harpsichord registration, puny and vulnerable amid Davies' wonderful welter of orchestral writing.

Timbres are rewardingly explored: brass in jagged annunciatory fanfares, extremes of woodwind registers opening up chording of vast inference, serene punctuations dividing paragraphs of hectic activity and a big trumpet summons dissolving into a heroic flute skirmish.

A string-led chorale under incessant attack leads to a spiky extended conclusion almost Rite of Spring-like in its raw heavings.
A la recherche d'une musique noire et brilliant, la créatrice mêle ici nombre de sons disparates: raclement de cor, cordes grattees, rebonds d'archers, tapotage de steel drum, tintements de xylophone, pépiement de clarinette ou de piccolo, notes crues de synthétiseur, etc. On reste assez perplex mais le résultat a de la consistance et ne manque pas faire sourire.

Reviews for Wild Card

It opens with the Devil card, the bass clarinet luxuriating in a kind of rude profundity. Melodies quickly develop, doubled on multiple woodwinds (strings form a backdrop), calling & swooping above the rhythmic patterns laid down by the percussion (the High Priestess & the Magician, perhaps). Texture is apparently just as important as tunes, though, & as the melodies subside, harp & piano introduce a series of rough, blurting gestures, the percussion tickling from behind. The two are then brought together; over an insistent bongo, the woodwinds bleat a fragmented tune, swiftly restoring the melodic ideas from earlier. In just a few minutes, Davies has made it clear hers is going to be a diverse piece, chopping & changing with serious alacrity. But likewise, what also becomes clear is that the programme note—in which she carefully describes her musical interpretation of each of the 22 tarot cards—could be a tad dangerous, potentially lulling the ear into perceiving Wild Card as a purely episodic piece—a kind of test where one listens out for & mentally ticks off each card as it appears. But Wild Card is more—well—wild than that; Davies has constructed a far more complex work than first impressions suggest, the ideas relating to individual cards by no means confined to neat, tidy episodes but recurring, quixotically, when it seems appropriate (or even inappropriate). 

Although Tansy's approach in earlier pieces has also involved the juxtapositions & permutations of different sonic shapes, it's hugely challenging to give oneself no fewer than 22 distinct kinds of musical material to play with. Frankly, it's courageous; such a plethora of sources could easily degenerate into a meaningless parade of un-unified elements, a mere display of ideas masquerading as a piece. But, while one trusts that the 22 material types are present & correct, the piece clearly isn't about that, Wild Card's not about structure; ultimately, as Davies points out, it's "a musical adventure loosely based on the 'Fool's Journey'". Journeys—at least, interesting journeys—aren't renowned for their coherence, rigorous structure & predetermined outcomes; quite the reverse, & Davies' inspiration is clearly drawn most to the fun that can be had in (quasi-)random juxtapositions of ideas within a context concerned most with simply moving onward & this the work does superbly; despite the wild (there's that word again) shifts from one minute to the next, the sense of momentum is undeniable, inexorable even. 

Wild Card is one of—if not the most—elastic, impetuous works premièred at this year's Proms; it's fantastical, bewildering, chaotic, utterly assymmetrical—& for all those reasons & many more, I love it. It's by far the most mature & impressive work of Tansy's that I've heard, sure of itself throughout (almost cockily so), executed with real aplomb. Don't expect to grasp it all in one go; its intricacies need many listenings to even start to become clearer.
Tansy Davies's new work, Wild Card, is a 20-minute orchestral traversal through the tarot deck and the "Fool's journey" it depicts. In her note, Davies professes her fascination with the "game-like" nature of the tarot and lists the musical motifs she has assigned to the 22 main cards. It is as if she is challenging us to her own game: divine a story from the musical flashcards, and so tell our fortune in her music.

It's not as simple as that, though, and no surprise there. The motifs are as much a matter of texture as instrumentation or shape, and some are so elusive that one half suspects Davies might be taking us all for fools. The Devil's stuttering dance pattern, on low winds punctuated by an itchy rattle, opens the work and provides one of its most distinctive ideas, as well as introducing the kind of misaligned rhythmic patterns in which Davies delights. Temperance and the Star together bring swirls from harp and vibraphone; the Sun sweeps all before it with a wind machine. Skilfully sparing with her use of a large orchestra, Davies creates an intriguing soundworld that never rests for long.
Every Proms season needs its wild card, and with only three days to go before the Last Night, we got it.

Tansy Davies’s Wild Card was the certainly the most startling, ear-tickling of this season’s premieres.

Davies tells us in her programme note that she’s always been fascinated by allegorical figures of the Tarot, and this piece is a whirling parade of 17 of them. The composer helpfully gave us a checklist: the Moon and Sun were opaque metallic sounds; the Lovers were two sinuous lines; Justice starts mercurially but soon develops a “grinding groove”.

But I soon gave up trying to spot the card and just enjoyed the parade of brilliantly etched musical images. Each was about a minute long, and was made of piled-up rhythmic tics clothed in low growling sonorities, with angular melodies tiptoeing above.

The piece was as ingeniously proportioned as a mobile, and there were enough fleeting musical interconnections to make this savage parade hang together as a whole.

The orchestra and conductor, Jiri Belohlavék, had the tricky score absolutely under their fingertips.This Wild Card seemed especially wild in its context, which was solidly German and romantic.

Reviews for Inside Out 2

...a brilliantly imaginative new ensemble work, inside out 2. The piece is based on a transformation of a musical line from one of Bach’s two-part inventions, and the result is a superimposition of two kinds of music. The strings and prepared piano create an infectious riff of spikey rhythms and percussive sounds, while the woodwind and horn play a sonorous chorale. Both layers begin to converge, in a chaotic conflict between instrumental timbre and melodic material. The piece generated an irresistable energy, at once playful and precipitous.

Reviews for Tilting

In its structural inspiration, Tilting proved to be one further work inspired by her fascination with Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect famous for cubes and slabs conjoined at perilous angles. Now, in a sense, the orchestra was the building; and there was Davies staring up at it, creating a giddy musical architecture from superimposed layers, hiccupping rhythms, melodic flute fragments, distorted echoes of troubadour songs — everything glinting in sharp, bright shapes and colours under the conductor Christophe Mangou. Most exhilarating. 

Reviews for spine CD

A diverse collection takes in both solo and ensemble pieces – the former ranging from the laconic Scarlatti inventions of Loopholes and Lynchpins, the Bach-inspired monologue of Loure and the oblique ritual of Dark Ground. The viol consort has amassed a whole new repertoire in recent years but the Dowland deconstruction of make black white is among the most impressive in its radical reimagining of the group’s sound as well as its sense...

The performances are as authoritative as expected from the calibre of soloists and ensembles involved, not least Samuel Boden and Huw Watkins in the two songs after Nick Drake - the distanced eroticism of ‘Static’ and the achingly plangent ‘This Love’...
Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies… stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings & the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy & clarity seem to be important & significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, & which clearly go down well with audiences & ensembles alike… As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels expansive & thoughtful.... Loure is one of the most deeply introspective works I’ve ever heard, yet emotionally is so internalised that we become mere spectators while the soloist wrestles desperately with themself… Iris exemplifies the best of Tansy Davies’ music, held together in an awkward, gritty tension that allows for both emotional depth & unrestrained exuberance.
A great portrait CD compilation of works from the first decade of our musically wonderful new century, by our great composer (Tansy Davies, b. 1973) who never repeats herself… Tansy Davies draws inspiration from her wide reading, touched on in her own notes which relate the pieces to different cultures and mythologies, rituals, drawing on music history and even trilobites from Paleozoic times (illustrated on the cover !)… the sequence here is so good that I have listened to it all twice through with mounting pleasure and admiration… I am eager to hear Tansy's ever next composition, assured of delight and surprise.
It's hard to think of another British composer whose rise through the hierarchy of British music has been so rapid… As this disc shows, her music is at its most compelling when it creates vivid textures, drawing on rock and pop idioms to give it edge and pungency… There's no mistaking the sensibility at work, nor the inventiveness and physicality that are so distinctive.

Reviews for Spiral House

The most fascinating work in the programme, however, which concluded with Steve Reich's Three Movements, was the breathtaking trumpet concerto by Tansy Davies, entitled Spiral House, dazzlingly played by principal trumpet Mark O'Keeffe and the SSO. 

For a first orchestral composition, this was a tour de force, a vast, juddering monster of a piece, with its unforgettable rhythmic tread conjuring images of the lumbering giants in The Ring, and its mind-blowing trumpet solos wonderfully offset in a muted Miles Davis soundalike section. An impressive orchestral debut.

Reviews for Iris

Tansy Davies's Iris was a London first, and with Simon Haram as the saxophonist linking the sound-worlds of itchy brass and still, viol-like strings, it made a restless, shining impact.
Tansy Davies' Iris of 2004, with Simon Haram's saxophone as shaman on a mysteriously and wittily constructed rainbow bridge between higher and lower worlds.
Tansy Davies' Iris is an impressive piece that makes great play out of skittering, repetitive figures, rich and dense scoring, and Davies' idiosyncratic stylistic overload. It takes in everything from Afrobeat-like ostinatos on bass (albeit in hyper-funk mode) and pattering drum refrains in cyclical patterns, to passages of direct pastiche, in this case of swinging (off the rails) Dixieland jazz. Yet these external signifiers never weigh down the flow of the work as they sometimes do in music from others working in this vein; the roundabout of material comes off as witty and wise. The skilful writing and committed and energetic (not to mention intelligently detailed) performance, particularly from Simon Haram on solo saxophone, made for a compelling fifteen or so minutes.
Iris, a saxophone concertino (soloist Simon Haram) named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, draws fruitfully on certain types of stylistic confrontation that go back at least to the early Seventies, when Davies herself was actually born. Brilliantly uninhibited wind and semi-pitched percussion sonorities form blocks against the soft background of a slightly rancid string chorale - the very description evokes memories. Yet the music is entirely individual, vivid, and above all acutely "heard." Even in the murky acoustics of the Town Hall, the detail sang out.

Reviews for Troubairitz, album launch gig

Azalea’s set was wrapped around the great Davies chamber triptych of neongrind show (electric) and salt box, their distinct yet complimentary blasts of gritty riffing united by the honk of (bass) clarinet, the chug of laptop samples, and an angular rhythmicism that remains more luminously motivic and groovy than most contemporary art music, yet also more bold and purposeful than the edgy jazz and funk which might seem her strongest influence. Along with opening piece inside out 2, the ensemble pieces spray-painted in indelible green letters a thoroughly unique and recognisable style across the set, which was broken up by a number of solo pieces for violin and clarinet, all played superbly if a little bashfully by the performers. The stage set-up, within the partially-deconstructed interior of the club, backed by the ‘trash metal’ which was to augment the percussion section in neon and salt box, and completed by the violinist’s brilliant raspberry leggings, was totally appropriate to Davies’s music, in which slippery, sexy motives are squeezed out against the smoke of the ensemble’s collective clank and splutter.

Reviews for Between Worlds

English National Opera may be more in the news for its boardroom troubles at the moment, but on the stage it is still commissioning and producing bold and interesting new work from rising home-grown composers. The latest offering is from composer Tansy Davies, whose first foray into opera tackles one of the most pivotal events of our age: the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. The result is a musically superb meditation on grief and transcendence; though dramatically, the anonymity of the characters or any subplot beyond obvious victim responses, keeps the horror of 9/11 curiously distant.

Deborah Warner’s production, like Greek tragedy, shows us the responses to colossal events that we have not seen. Michael Levine’s set presents three levels of suspended floors – the outside world beneath, the protagonists trapped on an upper floor in the middle and, above, countertenor Andrew Watts sits brooding as the Shaman, incanting the darkness that is to come, the suffering and release. The back wall is cleverly built of sheets of paper containing farewell messages, which fall apart on the first impact, while Jean Kalman’s lighting effectively simulates an internal structure in crisis; the firemen’s torches cutting through the smoky rooms is very eerie.

The libretto by Nick Drake presents a handful of diverse characters who emerge from the chorus – a realtor too busy to say goodbye to her son properly before rushing off to this breakfast meeting; an older man who told his wife he would see a cardiologist, but is at work instead. The most affecting performances are from baritone Eric Greene as the janitor and mezzo Susan Bickley as a bereaved mother.

Gerry Cornelius, as ever, conducts with ease. The key ingredient, however, is Davies’s music, which knits perfectly with jagged choral polyphony incanting the Requiem Mass and ‘De Profundis’ – reminiscent of Ligeti. It oozes confidence and creates a shifting, fragmented soundscape. 

A powerful work and a beautiful homage to this tragedy

Not an easy subject – but beautifully and tastefully done. The ENO at the Barbican performed Tansy Davies' opera with libretto by Nick Drake to a packed house. Directed by Deborah Warner, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, this portrayal of the events of 9/11 in New York unfolds through the lives of imagined people who lost their lives trapped in the towers.

The idea for the opera was based on the messages sent that fateful morning to and from people in the twin towers. While not specifically quoting, nor describing specific people, these messages served to spark an idea of normal human lives, with normal pettiness and grandeur, being stopped. A moment amongst the horror gave each of them a chance to speak to loved ones and it is this enlightenment that the opera focuses on. As Drake put it “Perhaps opera as a form is uniquely able to offer ways to express the horror and grief, but also to help us to discover something indispensable, and possibly transcendent, beyond that.”
Davies’ music, Conducted by Gerry Cornelius, was the perfect choice for this opera. Almost indefinable and constantly shifting, she provided shading and emotional catchment. Musical motes contrasted with the linear fluidity of the Requiem Mass which interspersed the work - a historical thread that returned the listener to the solidity of loss. But powerfully dense moments, such as when people realised that a plane had hit the other tower, were so loud that the singers voices produced waves of beat in the theatre. The next moment the score reduced to a double bass drone before flexing with icy tremolos as people realised that they too were trapped.

The Shaman, Andrew Watts set the scene with his repeated, urgent sibilants which later resolve into an imitation of phone calls with an interrupted signal. His presence on the upper story of the industrially functional minimalist set by Michael Levine was a constant throughout. With phrases like “Words come – there is only darkness” he could be the voice of fate, the voice of God, or something more malevolent. His very physical presence so high on a fragile suspended platform was a grinding contrast, indicative of the whole work.

Eric Green performed the janitor with lyrical tunes and thoughts as the day began. Perhaps the most overlooked of the workers in a day to day sense it was he who took control when those considered more powerful behaved badly or fell apart.

The office workers and their partners all portrayed different types, a harassed mother, a lover, an enthusiastic new comer to the city, a worried wife and a husband who was ignoring his heart problem.

It would be hard to single out any particular person as being the star – each role was musically as important as the next and care had been taken that the stories were centre stage not whimsical flights of decorated cadenzas. However the interplay between the music and the set added to the drama. The backdrop was a mixture of texture from a curtain that could be raised and projections of books and papers or text messages, or windows and half seen views across the city. The crash and subsequent tremors were expertly done – the set gradually disintegrating until people literally fell from the gallery (on wires of course).

The idea of time recurred throughout. Before getting to work many of the people mentioned being in a rush or not having enough time and later the prophetic nature becomes apparent. The half words and sibilants, taken up by the chorus, at times became fragments of whispered prayer which expand into the requiem mass.

Out of the deep, here “Out of the depth I call to you oh Lord!”, became the moment when words and music were not enough and dancers portrayed the symbolic rising of one man’s soul as it was transferred to the heavens. Following poignant beating of breasts and ululation, the people left behind lit candles and drifted home.

A subdued ending to a powerful work and a beautiful homage to this tragedy. A work which shows humans to be just that, human, but finding a quiet dignity at a time of loss.
Davies's music, a distinguished 80-minute score by a young composer whose style, at once stark and beautiful, bespeaks a genuine operatic voice. I hope she hangs in there; her country needs her. Airy textures rise with imaginative economy from a pint-sized ENO Orchestra that's tightly conducted by Gerry Cornelius. Late on, after the devastation, a virtuosic sequence where fleeting high-note figures flutter like debris above sustained low basses strikes me as music of the highest order. 

The central level of Michael Levine's three-tier set represents a floor high up within the building itself, while ground level is reserved for those left behind. Above them an all-seeing ‘Shaman' presides throughout, stunningly sung by Andrew Watts who dips from his habitual countertenor register into chest-voice baritone to create some startling vocal effects. 

Well-defined individual voices emerge sporadically from the excellent choral ensemble, while a dozen or more named characters are played with uniform excellence and commitment by the likes of Rhian Lois, Clare Presland, Phillip Rhodes and William Morgan. Baritone Eric Greene is especially impressive as the lowly janitor who emerges as the wisest voice among the victims. Susan Bickley contributes a predictably powerful cameo as the mother of one of them, a soul whose rose-pruning is interrupted by the dread of being warned by her own doomed child not to turn on the television. 

Do the towers collapse? They do, as they probably had to, but it's a horror that's achieved through nothing more substantial than myriad sheets of office paper. The accompanying sounds from the pit are similarly restrained: there's no mighty crash, just instrumental eeriness and a sickening silence.
That an opera has now been written about the inner life of 9/11 may appear inappropriate to some, but in another sense it was inevitable and entirely appropriate. The difficulty of doing it well, however, relates to the fact that cultural memory of the real event still possesses a hyperreality more potent than any possible artistic representation of it, and absorbing it into a fictional world, seems absurdly remote even now.

These difficulties were evidently manifest in the compositional process of Between Worlds. Both librettist and composer remained unsure of what, exactly, they should take as their subject for over a year, and it was only after meeting the stage director Deborah Warner that they decided to deal directly rather than tangentially with the moment of the attacks itself. But, incredibly enough, there is little trace of these difficulties in the finished work, a ninety- minute one-act opera, which seems extraordinarily equal to its task. The two “worlds” of the opera’s title refer, ostensibly, to life and death. The characters trapped on the upper floor are imprisoned between the two realms, each of them coming to accept this in their different ways during the opera’s progress. But the title also relates to a kind of flourishing of sympathy – as it were a study of the gap between ants and people – personified in the link between a shaman-like figure who sits suspended above the upper platform, controlling lines of communication, and a janitor, whose task for the day transforms from one of setting up a breakfast meeting to one of guiding uncertainly those around him to accepting what must be.

Individuation takes place after the shaman appears to reconnect the telephone line; the North Tower falls, prompting the janitor to encourage – and force, in the case of the disingenuous husband – each to reach out to their loved ones and say “what must be said”, as the janitor puts it. There is a good deal of skill in Drake’s libretto, which makes much of the transformation of quotidian platitudes (“there’s never enough time”) to profundities, and uses contrasts between prose and poetry, American English, Spanish and chanted Latin, to map out the fast-changing poetic territory. Deftly framed vignettes supply just enough detail (an estate agent forgets her mobile phone in her hurried, frustrated departure from her recalcitrant toddler son; a businessman lies to his wife about going to the doctor, heading for the fateful “important meeting” instead) to allow embryonic characters to form, but care is taken to allow the event itself to act as a crucible for the real characterizations.

The libretto’s sparseness leaves plenty of room for Davies’s music to shape and transform the dramatic action. The vocal settings trace the shifts in diction without awkwardness, while the orchestra submerges everything in shimmering, jittering continuities which build up a musical version of the kind of inverted vertigo experienced when one is near a tall building, looking up. The aeroplane strikes themselves, eerily prepared by a sudden change in the Shaman’s muttering to a piercing, high-pitched whine (strikingly achieved by the countertenor Andrew Watts) and refracted by the chorus chanting from the Requiem liturgy, send the orchestra into wild paroxysms of hyper-activity which grind the present into an excruciating, lurching continuity. Davies also proves herself wonderfully adept in marking out shifts in the perception of time, using exaggerated rhythmic profiles to spur on the drama before dissolving them into oases of reflexivity. In the lobby scene, during which a security guard tries to reassure a crowd of confused individuals who, unaware of the realities of the situation, are still trying to rescue their palm pilots and briefcases before the markets open, Davies uses temple bells to shadow the panicky speech rhythms but also to undermine, piercing the chorus’s jabbering with its pure sound. But the rhythms subside when the (two) firefighters arrive, screechy tremolo chords in the strings stretching out their gaze as they take in the scale of the moment.

Michael Levine’s spare set of slight, suspended platforms cleverly balances the need for theatrical transparencywith the requirement for spectacle. A wall of papers provides a backdrop for Tal Yarden’s video projections, a wind machine periodically ripples the panoramic views of the city. The collapse of the North Tower is depicted in the entire paper wall’s coming down, like a giant venetian blind slipping its fixings; as the drama nears its conclusion, theatrical illusion becomes less and less necessary. Deborah Warner’s direction makes the most of the limited stage resources, although her talents are most evident in the way the chorus and soloists never seem ill at ease with the purposefully thin characterizations.

The opera’s most beautiful moment, appropriately, both musically and visually, occurs at the end, in a dance between the sister and the suspended corpse of the Younger Man. The pair twirl, to music of gentle movement and unspeakable intimacy, animated by the opposing forces of the sister holding down her brother’s body as the wire pulls it irresistibly towards the darkness above.

[...] creating something so beautiful and troubling against a backdrop of something so awful and upsetting, speaks volumes about the artistic talents of all involved, no less than it does about the power of opera itself to find spaces where it is still, against all odds, worth taking the trouble to sing what can barely be said.
‘Between Worlds at times tears at the heart... At one point towards the end, the platform on which the four characters stand shifts ever so slightly, and an uncanny groaning sound comes from Davies’s modest-sized orchestra down in the pit. This hint was all we needed... That spirit realm is brilliantly suggested by Davies in a glassy musical texture uncannily flecked with rhythmic tics, suggesting that ‘spirit’ already knows the disaster is coming. In between come bursts of hectic activity, as the characters make desperate attempts to call loved ones and find out what’s happening, while the chorus laments below. Again, the music never shrieks at us. The desperation ruffles the surface of Davies’s music, which remains essentially meditative...At the end, the Janitor is lofted up to the spirit realm, while the chorus sings a ‘Requiem Aeternam’, their candles the only light in the darkness. It’s a moving end to a remarkable piece of work. 
‘The dangers of writing an opera about 9/11 — sensationalism and sentimentality among them — are obvious. But Davies and Drake succeed in obviating those particular risks... Davies’s score is a fabulously inventive aural fabric: exploding shards of sound frozen in a kind of cosmic aspic. That spiritual quality results from the composer’s expressed resolve to salvage vestiges of humanity from unspeakable horror...a resonant, multi- layered work which reflects huge credit on its creators and ENO alike. A poignant acrobatic tableau, depicting the final release of a soul, lingers in the memory.’ 
‘Davies’s orchestration is atmospheric and the harmonies and textures of the music build tension effectively: high, hypnotic harps, layers of keening strings, the voice-percussion of the Shaman, and bitter, ironic suggestions of telephones are just some of its eerie effects... Davies at times reaches that place of emotional embodiment that only music can capture, and wraps it in a dark yet cathartic embrace.’ 
‘Davies’s delicately-inflected sound-world creates an all- embracing ambience, and the vocal lines have the natural rhythm of ordinary speech...The psychological truth of this inexorable drama – which perfectly observes the unities of Greek tragedy – comes across with awesome power. Rather than crassly upping the decibels when a plane strikes the tower, Davies suggests sonic immensity through abrupt musical understatement; she creates keening effects with coloratura, and the heterophony she habitually deploys has the chorus sounding like a flock of frightened birds...a climactic fantasy sequence, accompanied by harp, high woodwind, and glissando strings, of breath-taking beauty...Breaking off in mid-bar as the chorus freeze holding candles of remembrance, this beautiful and extraordinary work leaves you transfixed. It may be an operatic debut, but it announces Tansy Davies as the most original new voice in the game.’ 

Reviews for Re-greening

... performing without a conductor, a state of play actively encouraged for Tansy Davies’s specially commissioned Re-greening. The woodwinds kept whooshing within tendril textures suggesting time-lapse photography of a burgeoning forest. The orchestra, led by the gifted Stephanie Childress, even found time to sing Sumer is Icumen In and Tallis’s Canon: ancient survivals cunningly wrapped into this eight-minute whirlwind, a gorgeous celebration of youth and rebirth.
... the 160-odd young musicians had the platform to themselves for the premiere of Tansy Davies's Re-greening, just eight minutes long, but gem-like in the beauty of its sound world. The leader of the orchestra cues most of the entries, sometimes passing the responsibilities to other section principals, and according to Davies, all the music os derived from found material. she has recycled the bits into a sleek, shimmering micro-polyphony; threaded through it are two "parallel lines of ancient growth", age old English melodies that the orchestra's players sing very quietly and purely near the beginning and end of the piece. It's enchanting.
... the extraordinary Tansy Davies launching the massive juggernaut of an orchestra with a piece specially composed for this occasion, Re-greening. Conductorless and containing a choral part but without a chorus, this brilliantly orchestrated eight minute opener was as fresh as an April morning. The links to Mahler came about by way of the block like orchestral colourings and with the voices of the young musicians singing as they played, sounding like a Mahlerian children's choir. This was the most lively and apt new work I've heard at the Proms thus far.

Reviews for Forest

It was Forest, Tansy Davies’s new four-horn Concerto, which stole the show, featuring two current Philharmonia members and – with Richard Watkins and Michael Thompson – former ones: what a foursome and what a piece. Davies (born 1973) has created a compelling opus concerning creation, nature and renewal, which might be heard as more urban than naturalistic, for this is a wailing woodland – sinister, nightmarish – in which the large orchestra (without horns) and the soloists vie for supremacy or act as a lavishly detailed and active combo. In terms of references, George Benjamin (finesse), Harrison Birtwistle (legend) and György Ligeti (whimsy) came to mind occasionally without being dominant. Davies has composed a tension-filled and incident-packed piece that goes beyond the potential showmanship of the title; indeed it is deep and thought-provoking. No praise is too great for the horn-players, whether agile or golden-rich sonorous, producing a darker glow when the instruments are muted, or the virtuosity of the Philharmonia for clarifying so precisely the complex writing guided by a conductor who knows a thing or two about writing intricate and vivid music. Forest is dedicated to Salonen and sustains its twenty-three minutes compellingly and with satisfaction ... hopefully it will soon be recorded.
Bright, supple, fleet-footed. The performance directions on the score of Tansy Davies’s Forest, premiered by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia, barely hint at the physical heft of this concerto for four horns or the extremes of temperature it suggests. Hot slaps of colour from vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel and frigid slitherings from trilling violins kick-start the horns’ refracted fanfares. Instead of indulging the horn’s lyrical voice, Davies keeps the quartet hard-edged and boxy, stamping the figures in close overlap. Raw mouthfuls of what sound like Mahler are bitten and spat out. This is not polite, deferential music, nor does it quite sustain its focus to the end, but as a retort to Schumann’s pine-scented Konzertstück it has grit and wit. Played by Richard Watkins, Katy Woolley, Nigel Black and Michael Thompson, Forest was the centrepiece of the second programme in the Philharmonia’s Inspirations series with the pianist.

The centrepiece was a new commission from Tansy Davies (premiered in Basingstoke earlier in the week). A former horn player, she showed her affinity for the instrument in Forest, a concerto for four horns. The soloists, playing mainly in consort, stride whooping, signalling, calling, through their own sonic landscape. Delicate tissues of sound, with glissandi and rapid trills across the entire ensemble, were offset by tangy percussion – drums and bells, tin cans, cabasa and rattle. It was as if the composer had put her head to the ground and recreated the roars and crackles of the forest.
Few composers have followed Schumann’s example in his Op 86 Konzertstück and composed a piece for four horns and orchestra. Forest, which Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia co-commissioned from Tansy Davies to mark the orchestra’s 70th anniversary, makes a striking addition to that niche repertoire. Davies calls the 25-minute single movement a concerto, but as a former horn player herself, her writing for the solo quartet (the Philharmonia’s current principal horns, Katy Woolley and Nigel Black, joined by two of their predecessors, Richard Watkins and Michael Thompson) is generally less about individualism and extrovert display than using them as a group to counterbalance rather than dominate the orchestra. 

Though her music is often characterised as edgily urban, references to the natural world beyond the cities regularly crop up in Davies’s works. In part Forest is, she says, a “celebration of creation, and the power that might be found – or refound – through developing better communication with nature”. And her writing for the horns regularly alludes to the instrument’s traditional associations with that world, though never in an obvious, anecdotal way; the calls and riffs of the quartet thread themselves through the orchestral busyness part of that soundworld while keeping their separateness. There are moments when the sheer profusion of detail seems to be self-defeating and the textures need more air around them, but they are distinctly outweighed by the inventive energy of the rest. 

Before the premiere, Pierre-Laurent Aimard had been the soloist in a brisk, no-nonsense account of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, everything in its place in a slightly straitlaced way, and afterwards Salonen and his orchestra unleashed an equally immaculate account of Also Sprach Zarathustra, a model of good taste, always an achievement in a tone poem by Strauss.