The Free-Reed Review
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CD Review: Howard Skempton
Surface Tension
Howard Skempton - accordion
Sarah Leonard - soprano
Dietmar Wiesner - flute
Cathy Milliken - oboe
John Corbett - clarinet
Stefanie Kopetschke - horn
Werner Dickel - violin, viola
Eva Bocker - cello
Rainer Romer - percussion
Hermann Kretzschmar - piano


Passing Fancy
Drum Cannon 2
Tree Sequence
Surface Tension 1
Three Pieces for Oboe
Surface Tension 2
Moto Perpetuo
Small Change
The Gipsy's Wife's Song
Gemini Dances #6
Under the Elder
African Melody

total time: 64.00
released: 1998
review date: August 2000

label: mode
PO Box 1026
New York, NY 10116
phone/fax: 212-979-1027

Review by Steve Mobia

Sometimes it seems certain pieces of music HAD to be created - that there was something overwhelming that compelled the composer to write them. Well, the opposite is the case here. These are short, wistful, pleasant miniatures that could easily have never been written or heard. Skempton has obvious links to the minimalists and his ambitions never get very large. His harmonies are tonal and conventional; the arrangements sparse. In other words, it's all tame and pleasant but forgettable.

Since there are 28 short pieces I will only list some. First off, the brief accordion pieces. They are all solos and the accordion is never combined with other instruments. Skempton himself plays the accordion here with musette and without any inflection or emphasis. Recessional is a series of modulating chords and a 3 note rising motif. Small Change is a faster march-like piece and Under the Elder is another slow one in alternating duple and triple meter. All are played in the same flat manner.

The vocal pieces (sung by soprano Sarah Leonard) are often longer than the instrumentals. Skempton frequently has the singer accompanied in unison which cancels harmonic interest and gives the pieces an unfinished quality. Fire is an ode to the comforting flames and sung like a stripped down show tune. The 4 tree songs From the Palm Trees, Willow, Laburnam and Mountain Ash are charming with repeated phrases and some contrasts between them. The Gypsy's Wife Song opens with trills, open octaves and fifths. The text tells the story of a gypsy fortune teller reading a privileged city girl's future with a sly put down.

Sometimes the instrumentals are so brief they're combined with others and act as preludes. Instrument combinations are occasionally quirky as when a rat-ta-tat snare drum accompanies piano on Gemini Dances. There are also a couple of oddly unexciting drum duets using slow rhythms. Occasionally a memorable melody starts to break through as in the Lullaby for cello and clarinet. More often the melody is derivative of generic folk music with predictable squared off phrases. The Bagatelle for flute is one of the few chromatic excursions.

The album does have an underplayed sophistication that may well appeal to some listeners who shy away from or are distrustful of bold expression. The CD is well recorded and the performers very competent.

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