Andrew Lewis (1963) read music at the University of Birmingham, UK, from 1981 — 84. He went on to study composition with Jonty Harrison, receiving his doctorate in 1991. Since he was in place in Birmingham during the formation of BEAST — The Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre — it is no wonder that he was one of the original members. Although his output is predominantly acousmatic, he also composes for conventional, or should I say classic, setups, like chamber groups, orchestras and vocalists. Andrew Lewis is a professor at Bangor University in Wales since 1993, as well as the Director of their Electroacoustic Music Studios.
Most of the music on this audio DVD is fresh and new, from 2002 to 2007, with the exception of one work from 1999.
Track 1. Penmon Point (2002 — 03) [15:26] To Maurice Lock.
Andrew Lewis has written a poetic text on location at Penmon Point, Wales, in December 2001, dedicated to Maurice Lock, which is included in the liner notes of this piece on Lewis’ website:
“A cold, clear Advent day. In the distance, snow-capped mountains appear still and at peace, yet close by the sea relentlessly pounds the Point on three sides. The steep pebble beach is drawn by waves that crackle and seethe with the mass of moving stone, while frozen pools on the shore splinter and craze in joyful counterpoint. Half a mile distant an island rises up, almost touchable — Seiriol’s island, home of the hermit, now lifeless yet still echoing with ancient worship. Even the lighthouse, beacon of guidance, tolls in ceaseless praise, as if to continue the songs of men who now sing before God.”
Lewis explains that his piece merges three aspects of this place, which he claims holds extraordinary sights and sounds: Musica Mundana, which defines “the ceramic, roaring scintillation of the waves” over the pebbles with “the splintering of ice, the cries of birds and the acoustic ambience”; Musica Humana, represented by the Priory Church, here exemplified by the 7th century plainchant hymn Conditor Alme Siderum, and Musica Instrumentalis, in which Lewis allots the lighthouse and its bell an instrumental role, which has already been done very successfully before, by Alvin Curran in his wonderful suite of pieces called Maritime Rites, in which he, among other sound sources, uses the foghorn of the lighthouse Portland Head in Maine. Lewis points out the periodicity of all three aspects of this geographic place in Wales, such as “the ebb and flow of the waves, the rise and fall of voices and [the] regular tolling of the bell”.
The first thing that strikes me is how cleverly the real breaks into the unreal, and the other way around, as when the swell of the sea grows into and through a clearly artificial standing wave of white noise, claiming its real rights in un unreal world. This happens gradually when it happens, in a way that gives you a chance to switch, time unit by time unit, back and forth between natural and artificial, or from artificial to natural, also getting a taste of the similarity between what is and what isn’t: it’s almost the same!
The second thing that strikes me becomes more obvious the more I listen to Andrew Lewis’ music: the elegance and sophistication. Much of his music shines like hardwood and polished metal — or like the brittle and fragile, light vulnerability of soap bubbles or Christmas tree balls. I’m usually not very fond of too polished electroacoustics, but it’s a bit different in the case of Andrew Lewis. He has a way of spraying grainy properties across the evenness of the elegance, allowing for disparate and thorny qualities in the interface of elegance and crudeness. This is part of his compositional secret, saving him from the hell of too tidy, neat and clean audio!
The Penmon Point piece falls right in line with my sentiments above. It has the clarity and purity and chastity of an impenetrable sphere of stubborn innocence floating in a space of sin and guilt, but its vicinity is full of wild dreams that cannot be tamed, far beyond the concept of righteousness and iniquity. Soon the air is permeated with clouds of irregular fragments of the future, and chanting priests are barely detected from a vague, indefinite place in the room. Their voices merge with the electroacoustic filtering which mixes the properties of human voices and the metallic ringing of bells — until a cruder and more straightforward ambience suddenly wakes you up like rain on your face when you’ve fallen asleep in a meadow on a warm summer day. Reality can be stunning.
The sea rolls in, thunders over the cliffs, and seagulls call out in the salty air, in a recollection rolled up in the 11 dimensions of the binaries of this disc. A star crushing thunder swells, carrying sharp and smooth audio, high and low pitches, far and wide and closed and crowded, in a jingling, soaring, wheezing, bubbling and chanting maze that slowly dissipates in a semi-transparent mist of sounds, through which more solid blocks of audibilities tumble like cubes of ice and dices, in a magnificence of a mudflow of the entirety of the moment; sounds brought forth by gravity and friction and an enormous release of pressure.
In the following stillness: a tingling sensation and the inward chanting of monks, but only as a brief, temporary deviation from the constant rumble of a tumbling sea at Penmon Point and the ocean of time in eternity.
Track 2. Llanddwyn Skies (2003) [14:49] To Christian Calon
The composer says he tried to “capture the solitude and stillness of dawn in Newborough Forest and […] Llanddwyn Island”. He felt that there was a perfect equilibrium at the time and place ‘tween “day/night, sun/moon, sea/sky, birds/planes…” Lewis masters the art of ecoacoustics in electroacoustics better than anyone I’ve heard before, even though some composers set out to specifically do ecoacoustic recordings. Andrew Lewis manages to wave a tapestry of the nature of synthetics with the nature of the naturalistic, enhancing both aspects. I say ‘aspects’, because the synthetic as well as the naturalistic exist in our universe, and are, by virtue of that, in fact both very much natural. It is just in a sphere of limited awareness that one can distinctly separate the one from the other. Everything is. In Andrew Lewis compositions everything is. It’s marvelous!
With a crawling, twisting motion in space, Llanddwyn Skies extends down the duration, forcefully and mighty at first, in the manner of a huge bell being struck, where after the sound slowly, very slowly dissipates — but in Lewis’ sound burst, a mass of sounds of many origins explode gradually like slow light out of a prism across a white table cloth. When the sounds have almost dissolved from space into time, another world is uncovered, discovered, recovered; a world which stays to itself, making no fuzz, not trying any publicity pranks; just existing in the back of everything: a sunny meadow, surrounded by a coniferous forest, songbirds twittering in an absentminded moment in the sun, crows arguing as they flap clumsily between treetops, moss on ice-age rocks, ants hauling pine needles to their hill. Jetliners streak through the timeframe like somebody stepping out of an oil painting in a gallery, joining the visitors, paint dripping, like blood from a gun shot victim entering the ER. Narrow-minded messages are drawn across heaven by glossy fuselages from Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, the scraping sound sawing through the bold pates of old-timers who care none about a melting icecap.
Suddenly an ice castle appears out of the air right in front of you, like a sobering hallucination, and you know not where to turn inside your musical dream. The scenery changes faster than the ice can melt or your opinions might change, while somewhere inside a memory, birds chirp. Marsh fluid gases bubble up your throat like methane burps. The motion is an outward one, away from the centre, facing the stars. Out of nothing: something. Out of something: everything. Out of everything: not much. And most of it all faces the other way, in this turned-away world, as you hear your body breathe inside this music, while passenger jets force themselves from one horizon to the next.
Track 3. Benllech Shells (2003) [8:33] To Esme.
Andrew Lewis begins his introduction of this piece with a remark that is very interesting, since it sort of shows what electroacoustics is all about — or almost all about! -, by referring to an experience that we all have; that of putting a sea shell or some other hollow object to our ear, observing the change in ambience, which fuels our auditive imagination, too, with the consensus that we hear the sea in the shell. This is quite wonderful, since it explains so much about this art form and about how much our own imagination fuels it. Lewis also says that his work Benllech Shells “employs computer technology to much the same end, lending an extraordinary aspect to ordinary and familiar sounds; those of a crowdy beach in high summer”.
The music begins with the extremely clean, coppery sound of a percussive attack, which extends elastically, swelling, like fluid from a toppled glass across an oilcloth that exaggerates the surface tension. The sounds are tremendously filling, to your ears what thick, dark chocolate or whole, hardboiled eggs are to your mouth. Thus the music is also bursting at its seams with sparkling and roaring energy.
When the sounds of this beach that floats in a bubble in our recollection gradually emerges between our ears (if heard through earphones) or perfectly panned out around our listening space (in a nicely furnished room with giant speakers and a surround system), clothed in bird song and the happy sounds of playing children (behind the filter of electroacoustic time!), they come with a slight tint of dreaminess, of nose tip hypnosis, rendering them that extra glow that we often overlook when the time is here and the place is now! Maybe hereby we, the listeners and the dreamers, get closer to that elusive state we call reality? Perhaps, by putting this shell to our ear, we understand the makeup and the significance of the ocean and the concept of ocean better? I’m sure art puts as right online with the center of ourselves, which is the center of everything, and which is situated everywhere! All times are now! All places are here!
Lewis shows a cunning wizardry when it comes to mixing the so-called reality with the so-called unreality (which both are just as unreal or real, really!) — and keeping things clean in the process. His sounds are so very beautiful, even through complex processes and extremely delicate and complicated mixes. This is unusual, to this extreme extent. Nothing ever blurs! The slightest smidgen of sound is clean and clear and shiny, even when a gull flies by at close range, calling out in its shrill and scraping voice inside an enormous soundscape of electroacoustics that has just built up like a thunderhead full of meteorological violence and the fatal approach of razor-sharp hail. Impressing! I’m also surprised at the ease with which the composer seems to handle children’s voices when he swings them around in serpentines that bring with them so much of a fairytale ambience that you almost feel like a soaring Peter Pan yourself. Magic! This shows what a master of the art can do with the best tools available. This fairly short piece is one of the most beautiful electroacoustic works I’ve heard.
Track 4. Cable Bay (1998 — 99) [10:04] To Francis Dhomont.
It is revealed that this piece is inspired by the North Wales seascape, and the sea sounds are recorded at a location called Cable Bay.
Lewis opens this piece too with a glary, clean bang, albeit a shade more muffled — and then he rattles jewelry like the Royals did for John Lennon. This tinkling jewelry percussion spreads its crystal daylight all through the thudding, flowing and extending sonorities, like melting water of spring finding its way through sand and gravel. It’s a miniature world of grains of sand, and a star spangled world of galaxies standing in space. Sometimes I hear the tutti of a starry orchestra hiding behind interstellar clouds of dust and gas, its sonic light illuminating the Veil of Maya — while on Earth the midday thaw of an April day drops into a bucket with an erratic but inevitable rhythm. This is a life of non-local connections. Andrew Lewis’ music tells this tale, as wave upon wave move over the sand of the shore, withdrawing and recurring, while the ringed plover and the little ringed plover move nervously back and forth close by…
Tracks 5 — 13. Danses acousmatiques (2007) [35:45]: Section 1: Vacuum (la scène vide); Danse des coups (solo); Shoal / Section 2: Torquetum (pas de cinq); Danse atomique (pas de deux); Flock (pas d’action); / Section 3: Swarm; Nebulum; Danse des gestes (pas de trois)
The composer deliberates on the aspect of spatialization in acousmatic music, and observes that this property not always receives the attention it’s worth, but oftentimes merely appears as an effect. I might insert that one composer dealt feverishly with spatialization; Professor Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was always hugely interesting to listen to him talk about this aspect of music and have him give sounding examples from his own compositions. Anyhow, Andrew Lewis wrote his Danses acousmatiques “in response to this state of affairs”, where “Danses acousmatiques represents a quest for creative, musically significant and ‘perceptible’ use of the spatial aspect of acousmatic music”. The music, in the form of a suite with nine movements divided into three main parts, moves “from the atomic to the cosmic”. Section 1 deals with “stars, planets, the music of the spheres”, section 2 with “the natural world, especially emergent flocking behaviors”, while Section 3 works with “the human world — dance and choreographic movement”.
After hearing these 35 minutes straight through, I can attest to the fact that this work, although being the longest and maybe — probably — the most worked-through on this audio DVD, is not the most artistically significant at all. It is amazing and astounding, yes, hilarious, by virtue of the insane motion of sound, the vanishing and appearing, the exploding, the imploding, the panning and the madly panning, the circulations and the spiralings, the meanderings and the slurping away, the cascading and the merging, the diminishing and the swelling, the contracting and the expanding, the thudding and the slithering — wow! Even though the sounds are just as clean and shiny and brilliant as in his other works here, the artistic aspect, which has rendered Andrew Lewis a lot of credit on the other tracks, lacks on Danses acousmatiques. This work becomes a catalogue composition, exemplifying all the various possibilities of motion and space in sound, and as such, it is fantastic, perhaps groundbreaking! I feel, though, that the composer also wanted to express his artistic vision, but in that case this particular work is lost in the cataloging… This doesn’t matter, though, because if you hear this as a catalogue of sounding motion and motion in sound, you have a masterwork — and all the other works on here are brilliant artistic expressions, such as rarely heard.