Gravity and Grace from the CentreDiscs label is the first album devoted entirely to the chamber music of Canadian composer Allan Gordon Bell. I have wanted to recommend this extraordinary disc for several months now, but sometimes, reviewing contemporary music comes with a unique set of challenges. I was drawn to this music on first hearing; however trying to understand and explain why required a lot of listening. Having performed Bell’s music since the 1980’s, Land’s End Chamber Ensemble knows this music inside and out; their performances leave nothing to be desired. The group launched this project because they believe Bell’s music deserves a much wider audience. So do I.
Allan Gordon Bell (b.1953) believes the task of an artist is ‘to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary.’ He found his inspiration for this music on the prairies of western Canada, where he lives. The cry of a falcon, buzzing insects, a distant thunderstorm, lightning strikes, howling coyotes and a sunset on the prairie – all these events of nature have found a place in his music. The results are pieces of raw power, haunting beauty and a profound spiritual depth.
The sounds Bell draws from his instruments are marvelous. There are times I felt certain that some of what I was hearing was electronically produced, but only acoustic instruments are used – clarinet, flute, violin, piano, cello and percussion.
Considerations of form and conventional musical techniques are central to Bell’s compositions and I think this fact is what I find most satisfying about his music. Rhythmic ostinatos, counterpoint, imitation and the development of thematic cells keep the music interesting. His use of contrasting and recurring sections with highly effective transitions between them helps secure formal structures. And the tension and relaxation cycle in the music (not only harmonically) drive it forward and give it purpose. Bell accomplishes what is important and lacking in so much contemporary music.
While Bell’s music is certainly not for everyone, its power and originality was irresistible to me. I invite you to listen to the samples provided in the sidebar, which are the first two movements of Trails of Gravity and Grace. If you think you would enjoy more of this music, go for it. Purchase the CD, read the program notes so you understand what the composer is expressing, and give the album an honest, focused hearing. I hope that the rewards for you will be as great as those I have enjoyed.
Allan Gordon Bell has one of the most individual compositional voices of western Canada and is the creator of rich and mature aural landscapes, works of a profound spiritual quality. The listener feels herself on the prairie witnessing a soaring falcon, or in a mountain range or caught up in a storm….
Performing these works is the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble of Calgary, devoted to Canadian and international new music, but also so much rooted in their home province that they can say they have joined in the composer’s journey for a quarter century or more in some cases. Joining the Ensemble is the great Canadian clarinetist James Campbell.
“…Bolstered by great performances by the core piano trio and guests, Bell’s music shimmers and shrieks, grumbles and growls…” – Max Christie, The WholeNote http://www.musiccentre.ca/
Allan Gordon Bell
Bell, born May 24th, 1953, is an award winning Canadian composer. Allan Gordon Bell received a Master of Music degree from the University of Alberta where he studied with Violet Archer, Malcolm Forsyth, and Manus Sasonkin, after completing undergraduate studies in philosophy.
Bell is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre, for which he served as President of the National Board from 1984 to 1988. From 1978 to 1980, and from 1985 to the present, he has been a professor of composition and music theory at the University of Calgary
Land’s End Chamber Ensemble
Land’s End in Cornwall, England, reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean into what were uncharted waters before the time of Columbus. The chamber ensemble of the same name was created to explore the boundaries of contemporary music, and to create compelling aural experiences.
Ilana Dahl, clarinet
Kyle Eustace, percussion
John Lowry, concertmaster
Beth Root Sandvoss, cello
Susan Ruberg-Gordon, piano
Mary Sullivan, flutist
James Campbell, Clarinet
James Campbell, born August 10th, 1949, is a Canadian/American clarinetist. He has more than 40 recordings, a Juno Award, a Roy Thomson Hall Award, Canada’s Artist of the Year, the Order of Canada, and The Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
Since 1999 Campbell has been teaching clarinet at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He has been the Artistic Director of the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ontario since 1985.