A blog can provide the ideal opportunity to highlight less familiar Contemporary music, and this interesting set of pieces by British composer Ed Hughes (born in 1968), employs the piano in all its glory. Orchids consists of six movements written between 1990 and 2002 for a collection of fine pianists; Benjamin Morison, Stephen Gutman, Robert Saudek, Nicolas Hodges, Michael Finnissy and Richard Casey.
Hughes has written for a whole variety of genres including ensemble, orchestral, solo and choral/vocal compositions, many of which have been performed in the UK and abroad, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Glancing at his biography, I noticed he has also worked on music for silent films; Battleship Potemkin and Strike. On listening to Orchids, it’s immediately obvious that Hughes’ style would lend itself perfectly to the silent movies medium. Full of drama, pathos and at times sheer terror, these works are not for the faint-hearted pianist, nor are they suitable for those who aren’t keen on notes, because the virtuosity required to do justice to these pieces is considerable (post-diploma level in my opinion).
Ed Hughes prefaces the score thus: A series of works for solo piano, the exotic floral image of the series title suggesting common patterns which underly gradual changes in the music. Each is a variegated single movement form in which the sections fold into each other, like waves or petals, disturbing and interrupting the surface polyphony.
There are several noticeable features present in Hughes’ compositions. The first is polyphony; each piece is laced with so many different layers of sound and colour, which at times becomes all-consuming. Secondly, the use of rhythm, which is complex, with many of the contrapuntal strands running in completely separate rhythmical patterns which somehow all glue together impressively. Use of timbre and tonal contrasts seems intrinsic to the style and sonority, and provides much-needed variation too.
Orchid 1, written in 1990, (dedicated to Nicholas Hodges) was first performed in January 1991 at Blackheath concert Hall by Michael Finnissy. This piece contains four parts (or lines of music) which all compete for attention, and require a cantabile sound. Menacing, melodic and rhythmically challenging, there is plenty to keep the performer and listener’s focus. The second work Orchid 2 (dedicated to Benjamin Morison), was written in 1991 and first performed at the British Information Centre in 1992 by the dedicatee, is considerably faster but just as contrapuntal. Displaced rhythmic patterns and a trance-like character pervade. The third Orchid, written in 1994 (dedicated to Stephen Gutman and first performed by him at the Brighton Festival in May 1994), is the longest of the group and begins calmly with a hymn-like serenity. Largely tonal, the work becomes increasingly florid, with many double note passages creating a highly evocative atmosphere.
The remaining Orchids depict various states of these delicate, beautiful flowers: No. 4 (composed in 1996 for Michael Finnissy and first performed by Ian Pace at the British Information Centre in July 1996), feels slightly improvisatory, with harmonic ambiguity and a nocturnal aura, whereas No. 5 (written in 2000 for Robert Saudek), is a frenzied and virtuosic Toccata. The final Orchid (written in 2002 for Richard Casey and first performed by Richard at the University of Sussex in February 2007) is edgy and dissonant; a biting, brittle sound with impressionistic seasoning.
Orchids are imaginative and full of intensity; if you are searching for unusual Contemporary piano pieces which explore the entire range of the keyboard, both physically and tonally, look no further. The complete set has been recorded by Richard Casey (2011), on a disc entitled Dark Formations (Divine Art), which is a compilation of Hughes’ works. You can find out more about it here.
A flavour of Ed Hughes’ music: