Meeting the Music of Rhona Clarke

A lovely disc: Rhona Clarke’s music is certainly worth of attention, and it is wonderful to hear it in performances of this calibre.

Meeting the Music of Rhona Clarke

I first came across the music of Rhona Clarke (no relation) when asked to interview her for Fanfare magazine. The disc was Sempiternam (the second disc of today’s post).

Born in Dublin, Rhona Clarke initially studied in her home town before completing a PhD at Belfast University; she is a lecturer at Dublin City University. She is herself a singer, which certainly accounts for her affinity for choral writing (see the second disc today, Sempiternam).

Rhona Clarke’s music embraces a wide vocabulary, as we can hear immediately in the Piano Trio No. 3 (2002, revised 2015, written for the 90th birthday of composer James Wilson, to whom it is dedicated).  The initial impression might be a jazz-influenced composer:

PIano Trio No. 3 (i)

A descending triplet figure haunts the movement’s central section, and how effectively and sensitively The Fidelio Trio (Adi Tal, cello, Darragh Morgan, violin, and Mary Dullea, piano) deliver it, as droplets of regret, perhaps. The cellist, Adi Tal, is replaced by Tim Gill in the more recent line-up of the group, incidentally - this is a 2016 recording. The second movement, simply marked “Expectently,” has a fascinating trajectory. As the composer herself puts it, after an initial gesture that outlines a tritone,

it is followed by an idea thatplays with strict but distorted metre, sounding rather like a mechanical toy that starts to break down and theen is wound up again:

PIano Trio No. 3 (ii)

(there’s a slight mis-labelling on the video that claims that this is the first movement - it isn’t).

Inspired by the landscape of the upper lake at Glendalouh, the site of an ancient monastic setllement in County Wicklow, Ireland), Gleann Dá Loch (1996. revised 1996) takes the idea of the contrast between the dark mountains and their powerful presence and a still, glistening lake. Light is an important inspiration, too teh glistening of the lake itself and how light reacts with the landscape’s features. We hear the contrasts between the opening (registrally separated gestures) and the stronger chordal aspects of the work’s second part, whih alternate witih scales and spread chords. These basic building blocks are effectively used - the bare textures put me in mind of a “Cathédrale engloutie” (Debussy) that has lost (most of) its Impressionism. Darragh Morgan is a most sensitive interpreter, and the Metier recording is faultless:

Gleann Dá Loch

Morgan projects the swirling figures later in the piece brilliantly - his pedalling is perfect. I for one woudl love to hear this piece live.

Like the Third PIano Trio, the PIano Trio No. 2 is cast in two movements. Here, the first is a dialogue between violin and cello over a slow chordal progression in teh piano.Listen to the expressivity of teh harmonic make-up of those chords, though, which form the bedrock for the gently unfurling lines above. Mary Dullea’s violin sings sweetly, while Adi Tal’s cello breathes its responses expansively. In response, the companion movement is fast and fugal, The composer herself acknowledges the influence of Bartók, which to my ears is immediately evident. Fascinating to hearMary Dullea present Clarke’s rhythms with real earthiness, as if they are some sort of invented folk dance, befoer the mood is subsumed into a more evidently Clarkian soundscape:

Piano Trio NO. 2 (ii)

All ofteh first four pieces on the disc sit around the four-minute mark. The final piece of that ”group” is Con Coro (2011) for violin, cello and tape. The “Con coro” (with choir) is a synthesised choir from samples of Clarke’s own voice singing extracts from the plainchant Ubi Caritas. Here's the plainchant, taken from the astonishing project Neumz. As someone once said (although not in relation to plainchant, I’m sure), there's an app for that:

Alternatively for the chant, you can also follow this link to follow the melodic line in plainchant notation (or download the app, of course!).

Clarke’s piece should be performed to a blindfolded audience, which in live performance, with its spacialised dimentions, must have been an astonishing experience. In stereo, it remains incredibly haunting: Clarke’s achievement is to present someting that is modern yet simultaneously ancient, a combination that put me at least in mind of the music of Cyrillus Kreek, a composer we featured a long time ago, near the beginning of Classical Explorer’s life.

Clarke’s Piano Trio No. 4 (2014) is subitled “A Different Game” and is dedicated tor the present performers. As with much of her recent music, Clarke used improvisation and a “sequencing program” to generate material, a process she likens to the “unconscious behaviour of children at play”. There is something of a return to jazz here, fused with minimalism, while pointilllistic chords propel the movement to a close:

Piano Trio No. 4 (i)

Those chords seem to spread into the disintegrating waltz that forms the second movement. The final part of the movement reveals gestures around a waltz accompaniment, which seems to suggest a conscious deconstruction, while the central part is more explicitly waltz-like, albeit in fragmentary form:

PIano Trio No. 4 (ii)

A plateau of calm precedes the finale, a “crazed dance” (to quote the composer). Hopping chords and gestures seem almost pointillistic, the music defnitely gritty:

The short solo cello piece In Umbra (2000, revised 2016: “In the shade”) is intended as a “contemplative epilogue” and certainly succeeds in that capacity. Adi Tal is supremely eloquent, the silences between phrases inviting contemplation before the final silence invites us within ourselves.

Below is my review of the choral disc Sempiternam, reproduced from Fanfare magazine with the permission of the editor Joel Fleger, and expanded with sound samples.

R. CLARKE O Vis aeternitatis. Two Marian Anthems. Ave Atque Vale. Make we Merry. Requiem. Māris Sirmais, cond; State Ch LATVIA.  DIVINE ART 28614 (72:36)

Written in 2020, O Vis aeternitatis offers a brilliant example of the power of Clarke’s writing. Taking a responsory text by Hildegard of Bingen that meditates on the power of eternity, Clarke’s wide-ranging writing (gleaming dissonance, vocal glissando, glowing harmonies) itself seems to invoke timelessness, even within this limited scale (not quite six minutes). All credit to the Latvian choir for negotiating Clarke’s writing, particularly the sopranos, who spend a lot of time in their very upper register:

O vis aeternitatis

There is a decidedly celebratory aspect to Clarke’s “Regina Caeli,” the first of the Two Marian Anthems of 2007. Only at “hora pro nobis” does the music move to more internal regions before a crescendo on “alleluia” beings the music back to its starting point. The second of the Two Marian Anthems is inspired by the central movement of Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet, both in the harmonic material and in the lines. This is slow throughout, the harmonies surely difficult to gauge for a choir; the State Choir LATVIA sings beautifully throughout.

Beginning with an almighty crash, Ate Atque Vale is a remarkable setting of Catallus’ poem, an expression of deepest grief on the death of his brother. As a piece that questions violence, it could hardly be more timely, its downward vocal slides. This could hardly be more different from the ravishing Make We Merry: Three Carols on Medieval Texts of 2014, an ingenious melding of the warmth of carols while retaining hints of Clarke’s characteristically pungent harmonies. The second, “Lullay, my Liking,” is particularly beautiful, while “Make we Merry,” the final carol, is sprightly and vibrant. It is also what the piece as a whole takes its name from. Here's Ave Atque Vale set against “Glad and blthe,” the first of the Three Carols:

Ave Atque Vale
Glad & Blithe

The 2020 Requiem is markedly compact: four movements (Introit, Lux Aeterna, Pie Jesu and In Paradisium). The date is significant as composition was begun at the time of the first UK covid restrictions, although the composer claims the text is one she had long wanted to set and had nothing to do with the pandemic. Using repetition to invoke a ritualistic atmosphere, the “Intoit” seeks to enter other worlds, with gleaming soprano dissonances and a forceful pleading on “exaudi”. Nothing can prepare one for the textures of the “Lux Aeterna” though, shifting, shining, dominated by the interval of a second. The text of “Pie Jesu” traditionally invites in a gentle setting, and so it is here, the music softly rocking: it is a measure of the fine recording that we can hear detail as well as texture here, just as we can hear the background against the fine soprano soloists in “In Paradisium”. Here’s that Introit:

Reqioem (i) Introit

The disc concludes with four pieces The first a setting of Ulick O’Connor, The Kiss (2008), a kind of melding between octatonicism and madrigalist question-and-answer passages, while the bright sunlight of A Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1991) is the perfect reflection of Dryden’s text. The choral brightenings at harmonic arrival points are brilliantly effected by the Latvian choir. Here’s The Kiss:

Fascinating to hear a setting of Mary Elizabeth Frye’s über-poignant poem Do not stand at my grave and weep (2006); there is hope in Clarke’s setting even from the first line. Massively poignant, this is a clear highlight of this fine disc, so here gets not one but two different performances. Here’s the one on the disc:

Do not stand at my grave and weep, Metier version

.. and here’s a live performance (with video) by Laetare Chamber Choir:

Do not stand at my grave and weep, live performance

Interesting how The Old Woman (2016) takes a nursery text and underlines the darker elements, partly but not wholly through stomping and clapping. Clarke also incorporates a quote from Elizabeth Maconchy’s Prayer Before Birth: the line “I am not yet dead” quotes the melody of Maconchy’s setting of “I am not yet born”.

Finally, the 1994 Rorate Caeli, cast in Hypolydian mode initially, then Aeolian. The music is curiously timeless, floating, beautiful. This piece is also demanding of its choir, and once more the Latvian forces triumph:

Rorate Caeli

A lovely disc: Rhona Clarke’s music is certainly worth of attention, and it is wonderful to hear it in performances of this calibre. .

A third disc, I am Wind on Sea: Contemporary Music from Ireland includes Clarke’s smiling like that ..., a masterful setting of Molly Bloom’s speech form the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses performed by the wonderful Aylish Kerrigan with Dearbhla Collins on piano: