Modern classical music is primarily a consort of the modern musical elite, with little to no basis in consumer demand.  It is more often than not the product of a graduate thesis, or commissioned by an eccentric for equally eccentric ends.  They Will Take My Island by Robert Martin is one such project.

At this juncture I should clarify two things: first, I am woefully under qualified to be making aesthetic judgements on music of this kind and caliber.  You know what?  I retract that.  I like music, dammit, and I write about it , so I’ll comment all I want. (The second disclaimer is simply to inform that this is not a new work, as such.)  Martin introduces his piece as follows:

“In late 2008, Max Lifchitz, conductor, composer and pianist asked me to compose a piece in honour of the 30th anniversary of the group and concert series he founded, the North/South Consonance.”  Martin draws his title from a painting by Arshile Gorky, and I admit that after the twelve seconds it took to track there work down, the base components of Martin’s assemblage become far easier to unpack.  Anyone serious about digesting this composition would do well to do the same.

Everyone on board?  Excellent.

Completed in May 2009, and premiering with the same orchestra it honours, They Will Take My Island, like Gorky’s painting, is all about splashes of colour.  Disparate images.  Urgency, exploration, surrealist expression.  If the painting echoes the work of Miro in its wiry confusion and appetizing palette, its musical reciprocal evokes similar ideas.  We are confined within a limited chamber framework (ten instruments, five of them strings, no percussion) and these disparate elements interact with the spindly, exacting touch of brush strokes.  Each flutter of paint on canvas is but a part of the observed whole, and so here Martin’s touch is evocative without falling back on an easily identifiable thematic centre with which to temper his centre.  It is challenging stuff, surely.

If Gorky evokes Miro, Martin’s piece carries echoes of Stravinsky.  He has a penchant for enjambing odd triplets and irregular metrical structure against a straightforward time signature; at times cinematic, at other neurotic and grating.  Unexpected interruptions of rich harmonies and differing textures (the welcome addition of proud french horn exposition against a backdrop of frenetic, cascading woodwinds for example) pepper the work.  Perhaps the best quality of the work is its continual tension between evocative rhythmic texture and ever-changing harmonic structure.  Martin shows an undeniable respect for tradition and a clear concision when it comes to compositional force.  Other modern composers have been content to let dissonance do their work for them, with little thought to resolving that dissonance into a cohesive whole.  Martin, by contrast, appears to firmly grasp the summative nature of his work – he refuses to shoehorn his material into formulae that do not enhance its essentially expressionist nature, and for that I applaud him.

They Will Take My Island is well worth a look, particularly for those among you who would speak disparagingly of contemporary composition as a jumble of shock-value aesthetics vying for position as heir to the modernist throne.  At a scant twelve minutes it is impressively dense, and yet there is a tendency toward echoing space between the notes that, much like the blank spaces of a canvas, invite the question of how to fill the void.  Martin gives his listener as much credit as that, and more.