Howard Skempton

Surface Tension

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Surface Tension is a varied collection of 28 pieces, most of them typically short, by the fascinating British composer Howard Skempton. More commonly associated with works for piano or accordion (both also featured here), this session includes various chamber instruments, as well as soprano voice. Skempton in the '60s had been associated with the English avant-garde scene (including the fabled Scratch Orchestra) but, like several of his colleagues, he jettisoned most of his overt experimentalism for a more populist approach that made liberal use of British folk forms while never quite forgetting lessons learned from composers like Morton Feldman. The apparent simplicity of many of his pieces conceals an underlying complexity, and the most sumptuous melodies have an air of stasis about them, hence, perhaps, the disc's title. Several of the solo vocal pieces recall, for example, Joan La Barbara's readings of Feldman "songs," such as "Only." Indeed, this disc contains a bit more of the "classical" side of Skempton than the accordion collection Home and Abroad or the extraordinary John Tilbury performance of Well, Well, Cornelius. The title tracks nod both to minimalism and to the early work of his former associate Gavin Bryars, for instance. Interspersed with such gorgeous melodies as "Small Change" and lovely meditations as "Recessional," these works provide a balanced portrait on this underappreciated and often beautiful composer.