Simon Holt is one of the really big names in British music, highly regarded by those who listen live and read scores, so this release from NMC, specialists in modern British music, is particularly welcome. A Table of Noises follows on from A Book of Colours, Boots of lead, feet of clay and Era Madruaga, all from NMC. Eventually, more of Holt’s work will be readily available on disc because it rewards repeat listening. Holt’s music isn’t noisy. Like good poetry, it reveals itself in quiet, unhurried contemplation.
The title piece, a table of noises, (2007) refers to the table at which Holt’s great uncle Ashworth worked, where he kept tools readily to hand, meticulously organized. Ashworth was a taxidermist who stuffed birds and small countryside animals. There’s something surreal about taxidermy. It brings the woodland under the control of the parlour. But can you be decorous with a dead badger in the living room, staring at you thru glass eyes, lifelike but immobile ? Taxidermy is fiddly, messy work and quite unnatural, but strangely obsessive. Great Uncle Ash was disabled so he kept his tools together within easy reach, meticulously organized. Picture that table in your imagination. It’s a metaphor for Holt’s music. It’s strictly defined but the very confinement generates resourceful adaptation.
Simple means are used for maximum effect. Colin Currie, for whom the piece was commissioned, plays a variety of small instruments, played in groups of three. The sound is pared down to essentials, very methodical and down to earth. Hence the jaunty rhythms and unpretentious sounds. Do we hear a tin whistle in the mix ? Or a squeaky toy ? Currie plays fairly conventional instruments like glockenspeil and xylophone, but the effects are decidedly quirky. Hammers and chisels clattering as if in a workshop, interspersed by silences and odd rhythmic progressions. a table of noises is wacky but tightly organized. It feels like a solemn but vivacious dance. Clog dancing springs to mind. Them rhythms are jaunty yet “grounded” since the dancers are possibly drunk and club-footed, and wear heavy boots. Why should athletes have all the fun ? Holt turns rough and ready into art form.
Flights of fancy. like the piccolos calling above the ensemble inject a wayward spirit of eccentric freedom. Why did Victorians preserve dead roadkill and pose them in anthromorphic positions ? Perhaps we are in the lab of a mad scientist whose inventions seem bizarre but might have an inner logic. As Currie hammers away, the orchestra produces equally inventive effects – booming bass trombone and tuba, like the pipes of a funeral organ gone mad. Some of the ten sections have descriptive titles, like “Skennin’ Mary”, a neighbour whose glass eye spun when she became angry, which would have fascinated a taxidermist who kept collections of glass eyes for his specimens. Four sections, though, are simply “ghosts”, reminding us that what we hear might not be what we assume. Holt’s inventive use of sound also reminds me of Third World musicians who make music with whatever comes to hand, like sticks and rocks. Percussion may be the most ancient form of music. That’s a compliment, since a composer who can work with humble sources understands innately what makes good music. Holt’s a table of noises is also fun. The exact background doesn’t matter, since we can feel the sense of adventure in its inventive sounds, and relate to the good natured, if oddball, sense of humour.
Macabre humour, too, in St Vitus in the Kettle (2008) a brief but tightly structured miniature which begins as a wild dance, whipped by insanely high piccolos, haunted by dark, sepulchral block chords. For a moment silence descends but the manic, energetic rhythms return with even greater force. Do we hear in these bubbling rhythms the sound of boiling water ? St Vitus in legend was a child was martyred by being boiled in a kettle but leapt unharmed and intact, being saved by faith. Medieval peasants found cathartic outlet by dancing orgies in his honour, hence the term “St Vitus Dance” to describe derangement.
St Eulalia of Merida, the ostensible subject of Holt’s Witness to a snow miracle (2005) was martyred by the Romans by being buried under hot coals. She rebuked her persecutors to the end, when snow miraculously descended, while her soul ascended to heaven. Thus the cadenza with which the piece begins, with Chloé Hanslip with wild but determined frenzy. Does this suggest religious mania or the equally fanatical mania of her persecutors ? Either way, the violin expresses extremes of pitch and tempi, supported by screaming woodwinds and contrasted with ominous brass and percussion. Harps and celeste sparkle, suggesting snowfall, and divine intervention. Eventually the violin soars upwards, as the pounding brass grows muffled. The heat of mania is silenced, under a blanket of snow. As so often with Holt, textures are built up through meticulous process, every note clearly defined. Medieval audiences adapted highly coloured, exaggerated tales like these to suit their own needs. Simon Holt adapts them into abstract music, but music that connects to human passion and emotion.
Original Source: Simon Holt a table of noises NMC