Malcolm Atkins has a long experience of collaborative projects with dancers; his dynamic work with Cafe Reason, Ana Barbour and Susie Crow  to name a few, has helped to shape in Oxford a culture of collaboration where the joint creation of dance and music with all its birthing pains is cherished, and thankfully even preferred by some dancers to the outsourcing of music-as-a-commodity.  This CD is a testimony to a lively contemporary dance scene, confident and brave enough to trust and commission new music.

The fifteen pieces on the album were written and realised in the past couple of years for performances by dancers/choreographers Ségolène Tarte (Triple-Entendre), Anuradha Chaturvedi, and Ana Barbour (My Time, Inertia) as part of the Dancin’ Oxford local dance artists’ platform, Moving with the Times, at the Pegasus Theatre.

Although considerations about the relationship between dance and music are beyond the purpose of this review (as what is in my hands is a CD of music isolated from the context which brought it to be), it is clear that the very shaping of the pieces is a consequence of collaborative processes with dance,  where the need for sound cues, dramatic changes and mood switches occasionally demands a strict synchronicity with movement as well as contrapuntal, oblique or independent developments. This engenders a refreshing variety in the overall musical forms of the pieces in this album.

On the face of it, quite a few of Malcolm Atkins’ musical edifices on this album seem to be constructed on a bedrock of benign regularity: short bass line ostinatos and an often insistent pulse. These few invariants are an electronic keyboard bass which is sometimes augmented by off-beat guitar or piano chords, drums and instrumental, vocal and speech riffs. With and against this pulsation, the tonal palette is constantly shifting: strands of varying length and hugely varied nature (fragments of speech, violin, melodica, piano, vocal harmonies, and different digitally synthesized and recorded noises and pulses) are introduced, intertwined, and wrought, sometimes brought to their logical maturity, sometimes interrupted. This is a music which is built, the effects arrived at are a consequence of a refined construction/erosion process as well as coming from deliberate sudden shifts. The core of his working method, (the joint use of loops, ‘traditional’ compositional technique, improvisation and digital manipulation) cannot be deemed separate from musical and meaning-carrying content. Whereas the pervasive use of loops in ‘ambient’ music and in some dance music can often be a seductive and soporific lure towards oblivion in the face of human predicament, there is something quite different taking place here and altogether very interesting: the benign regularity which may have seemed reassuringly familiar at the beginning of a piece has acquired an ironic edge when it reappears in a context which has evolved beyond recognition in the course of the piece. Self parody, irony and humour coexist with strong form and presence, delicate, even fragile instrumental utterances with digital keyboard ready-made sonorities, intelligible speech with speech-as-sound, traditional dances (waltz, tango, dub etc.) with medieval, modernist and minimalist compositional techniques. The musical world which Malcolm Atkins has conjured up in this album is full of interesting implications as well as it is thoroughly enjoyable to listen to, it is constructed with a fine ear to the detail of sound, with textural translucency and clarity even in very dense passages.

It is worth noting that the recorded sound (except in one piece) is quite frontally placed in the stereo image: although the individual strands may each trigger associations in the listener, the purpose is not to create an illusion of space or a suspension of disbelief from them, (nor is it to only make either a dadaist or post-modern statement). If anything there is a Brechtian quality to the work, the existence of dynamics of power and the need to expose them for what they are subtly permeates the whole work in its pluralistic rather than eclectic fabric.

There is an optimism about this music, a deeply held belief that exploration is worthwhile and necessary.

Ségolène Tarte’s piece (premiered at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford in March this year) is built on ideas around the power of memories, and Malcolm’ s music in its conscious play with ideas of ‘same’ and ‘different’  never completely leaves that field.  After the atmospheric beginning of ‘Stuck on the rail tracks’, ‘Angry with the world’ built on a drum and bass ostinato becomes what might be a ‘demo tune’ of a Casio keyboard from hell! The tango that follows is leasurly, the melodica and piano lines eventually giving way to otherworldly glass-like textures and harmonies. The folksy waltz which ends the set hints occasionally at medieval constructs, and in the Babelesque polyphony of spoken words on which it ends, some form of temporary peace has been made with the human (speaking and meaning-making) condition.

The Indian Melody for Anurhada Chaturvedi avoids exoticism completely. By the way of variation and elaboration the tune disintegrates and rises again several times.

The collaborations with Ana Barbour make up the remaining ten tracks, and elicit a broad span of approaches to the scores.  There is spaciousness and also almost unbearable tension and anxiety as well as humour in She may be a little while, and Don’t worry, done for My Time, an autobiographical piece by Ana about  the body’s frailty (and the chasm between the individual’s inner reality and the language forged around it).  Neutral emotion in sharp contrast, is a springy and finely wrought piece in a more minimalist vein, reminiscent of Steve Reich and Louis Andriessen, ending in a modal elegy which still carries the ghosts of its origin.

The scores for Ana Barbour’s Inertia, (a wistful ‘Éloge de la Paresse’, an attempt at living with the predatory voices of a sloth-condemning superego) incorporate several speech sequences, including interviews on the subject! Weight of care, an archetypal waltz, has a peculiar strangeness:  over the progressively more extended harmonies a tune is barely hinted at, as though the cyclical rhythm and fullness of the world highlighted an emptiness within.

For the sake of space I have only touched on some of the pieces in this album.  I expect readers of this dance-related site will find this music rich in resonances with their researches and endeavours, questioning and requiring as much as it is touching.

Bruno Guastalla 

18th March 2013

CDR available from the composer: by email, malcolm.atkins1@ntlworld.com or music download from:

http://malcolmatkins.bandcamp.com/album/moving-with-the-times

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