BUTLER Dirty Beasts. Down-Hollow Winds. Rondes d'Automne
Plenty of new music has pretensions it can’t sustain. Not so Martin Butler’s. His output comes close to post-minimalism yet there’s no tendency to inflation or bombast and the harmonic language is clear and clean in a way that suggests American and French music from the middle of the last century – Stravinsky and even Debussy continue to loom large. Butler also has a real sense of humour. Listeners who find works for actor and ensemble intrinsically anomalous (and may blench at the prospect of three macabre verses by Roald Dahl treated to a ‘modern’ musical backdrop) will find no sense of condescension or complexification here. Simon Callow is splendid as the narrator and the New London Chamber Ensemble play with verve and commitment. Dirty Beasts should entertain children of all ages. I just wish there were more of them. The three ‘settings’ of ‘The Pig’, ‘The Tummy Beast’ and ‘The Crocodile’ are not new and last only eight minutes in total. Their revival now celebrates the writer’s centenary.
Next up is a delightful wind quintet, Down-Hollow Winds, in which the harmonic and rhythmic wellspring is folksier and pentatonic; there’s one Ligeti ish movement, again nothing to frighten the horses. A clutch of accessible piano pieces reflects Butler’s facility at the keyboard – he’s an enthusiastic improviser as well. While I was less taken with the whimsical Lovesongs Waltzes for clarinet and piano (the title itself a Brahmsian in joke), the closing item, a nonet entitled Rondes d’automne (a Debussian allusion), builds something more resonant from its deceptively simple descending idea.
NMC provides expert sound and erudite accompanying notes. That said, the music has such immediacy, charm and fluency that, for once, the annotations aren’t essential reading: many listeners will be content to dispense with analysis and go with the flow. This is ‘new music’ but not quite as we know it.