Known for making ‘the scary, weird noises’ with his cello on numerous soundtracks, the modest Peter Gregson has performed works by many august composers including ACL favourites Daníel Bjarnason and Max Richter. We previously featured him in the spring with the release of split EP The Watched Clock, but Gregson has not rested since, releasing two fully scored bodies of work of increasing quality.
rich and melodic
Scoring a film with the word “chaos” in the title could have led to a disarmingly avant set, full of the sort of jarring dynamic changes and tonal dissonance peddled by the likes of Cage and Takemitsu. In fact the setting of the film is the gardens of the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, and the title of A Little Chaos refers to the aesthetic preferences of a landscape gardener played by Kate Winslet – as well as no doubt the upheaval caused by her blossoming presence within the King’s court. (Watch the trailer for a sense of the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, although be reassured that its Disney-esque music is not found in the OST.)
A rich and melodic soundtrack results, filled with both the tradition of the Versailles court and the dramas between its chief characters. Naturally, Gregson’s cello is something of a fulcrum, revelling in the rich melodic opportunities such a romantic setting offers. From opener “Sabine”, where it immediately establishes the motif, and second track “What Happened”, where its stabs provide an aggressive rhythmic anchor, the cello exudes an talismanic presence from the start – not omnipresent, but salient. The set grows richer in texture as it progresses, affording less room for such stand-out moments in its second half. Here, barring the frenetic tension of “The Sluice Gate”, where the motif returns as waspish stabs from the violins, the piano comes to dominate and the earlier compelling dynamism levels out somewhat – no doubt in response to a more focused and romantic thread in the storytelling. By the time the penultimate piece “A Little Chaos” arrives, the cello dances in a higher register to the conducting of the violins. Levity is exuded, triumph assumed.
subtlety and grace
Even the most rhapsodic of compositions frequently have moments of controlled calm – a collective breath for the musicians to steel themselves for the flamboyant, frenetic finale. Such moments either serve to heighten the intensity of the crescendo that ensues, or are a kind of emotional crescendo themselves, encouraging more attentive listening and forging closer connections between players and listeners. Gregson’s third self-composed LP, Touch, is a suite of such moments – an accompaniment to the day’s emerging dawn or suffusing dusk rather than its frenetic middle.
After an introspective and spacious opener, second track “Time” delivers a spring breeze of momentum. Myriad ostinatos of muted piano, strings and electronic beeps propel the cello line, which continues in the same register from the opener. The Reich-esque rhythmic backing develops and spawns further layers as the cello reaches its dynamic and emotional crescendo. With so much going on, the track’s third minute could sound cacophonous in the hands of many; here it exhibits remarkable restraint. It is one of the record’s finest passages, and perhaps its loudest – over so early and so calmly.
While its dynamic range may be narrow, Touch is impressively varied in compositional method and voice. “Chorale” limits itself to Gregson’s main instrument, in which meandering and interweaving cello lines are later joined by rhythmic elements that rise and fall. Over the course of five minutes, Gregson this time shows that he doesn’t need sundry voices in order to progress through movements with subtlety and grace. “Turn” is more traditionally cinematic, albeit quietly so, deftly alternating between piano- and cello-led passages in a similar vein to much of A Little Chaos. Most experimental of all is title track “Touch”, which makes the most overt use of electronics. Twee synth ostinatos emerge in different metres over the opening two minutes, their organ-like voices creating an impression of a church in a diorama. Strings and droning synth notes provide incremental texture and, eventually, rhythm, in time ebbing as gradually as they entered to make way for the next movement. After six and a half minutes, a violin calls out like a bird heralding a spring morning, and a flock soon responds. As the excited chatter dies away, the synth line that opened the piece nine minutes earlier reminds us whence we came.
triumph and variety
The two records exhibit contrary styles. Where A Little Chaos OST contains short bursts of drama full of melodic hooks and precipitous dynamics, Touch is more drawn out but with half the tracks, each unfurling with the quiet determination of a leaf in spring. Written as a stand-alone work, it is of course comfortably the stronger – but this should not obscure the triumph and variety of both. 2015 could well be the year that Peter Gregson fully emerges into the spotlight alongside the classical luminaries of today. (Chris Redfearn)