Tender Symmetry shares two things with the latest release from Nils Frahm: a choir called Shards and an infatuation with the recording space. Just as his label-mate did back in January with All Melody, Michael Price’s new LP focuses almost as much on the place where the music was captured as on the music itself. But this is far from the contemporary, polished interior of Frahm’s Berlin-based Saal 3. It’s not even a single space at all. It’s several, each delving into a dim corner of England’s history.
Price seems absorbed by the idea of places radiating life ~ buildings or exteriors with ghosts that impart historic tales to anyone who takes the time to listen. With 2015’s remarkable Entanglement LP, the UK composer sought to evoke the magic of finding a gem in a dusty Berlin record store in the 1930s. He’s now taken that concept a strident step further. Working with the UK’s National Trust charity, Price scouted seven locations around the land as an experiment in inspiration and composition far removed from a clinical studio. After writing a piece for each place, he returned to those locations with musicians various (including cellist Peter Gregson) to record in situ. As such, Tender Symmetry contains both poetic and literal imprints of locations as diverse as a cotton mill and a tunnel complex.
‘Taking inspiration from a place, and the stories it told, then going back to that place to record, sometimes in less than ideal conditions, made the two-year adventure much more like shooting a film than making a record.’
– Michael Price
Price recollects a scenario that befits a man who has won prestigious awards for his film and TV soundtracks. How far he has come, from heightening the mood of others’ stories to being a vehicle for the often-forgotten stories of England’s history. “Fan Bay” (each piece is named after its location) is sombre and minimal, its soft organ tones and pensive cello trading melody with a dulcet male vocal. (Yes, the operatic vocals return from Entanglement, giving literal voice to empty rooms, dusty furniture, forgotten corners.) The aura of “Fan Bay” is intensified by its location ~ a shelter carved into the white cliffs of Dover during World War II, in which young soldiers spent months of end, fearing their end.
The near-11-minute “Speke” is the record’s longest and most dynamic piece, moving through several movements from graceful to grandiose as though touring us through various rooms of the restored Tudor hall in which it was recorded. Soprano Grace Davidson imparts a mournful soliloquy while a gathering of birds eavesdrop from the courtyard; a swelling bed of murmuring strings pauses before erupting into a crescendo of emotionally entangled polyphony. Recorded in a memorial chapel, choir piece “Sandham” was inspired by the murals of acclaimed Great War artist Stanley Spencer that are housed there. Like an overture, it sets the tonal narrative of the record superbly, morphing from atmospheric tension to gratification. More-abrupt changes of mood are aptly found in “Willow Road”, recorded at the London home of architect Ernő Goldfinger where quaint domesticity is juxtaposed with Brutalist sensibilities. The chamber piece accordingly switches from quiet pizzicato to a bouncing, ostinato-based rhythm, before a creeping tension emerges, in marked contrast to the faint opening sounds of children playing outside the house.
The record is a quieter and more sober set than Entanglement, prioritising atmosphere above all. The exception is “Quarry Bank”, inspired by an 18th century cotton mill. Partially recorded deep in the steam house itself, chopping violins gradually set the machine in motion before exploding into life with a frenetic ostinato, driven by a chugging cello rhythm. A complaining screech signals the abrupt halt of machinery, and suddenly all lights are extinguished. Groping in the darkness, we find children at work ~ some as young as eight years old. Not only do they work here ~ long, physical days ~ they live here too. The strings intone a slow lament that gradually rises in a protracted shriek of defiance ~ the record’s ugliest and most vital moment.
In this and “Fan Bay”, which follows, the record encourages cogitation on the enforced loss of childhood innocence throughout history’s revolutions and wars. Innocence too often considered cheap, too quickly becoming experience. It is this theme that Price also explores through the lyrics that decorate all but one of the compositions. The vocalists sing extracts from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the poetry collection that reframed Milton’s “Paradise” and “Fall” states to highlight the pernicious influences of the Church and the Industrial Revolution on children.
‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’
– The Tyger, William Blake
But Tender Symmetry is yet a further reframing ~ one that imbues the narrative with optimism. (The title itself is a flipping of the ‘fearful symmetry’ phrase in The Tyger.) The set closes with the wonderful “Shade of Dreams”, whose simple string melody intensifies and deepens alongside a vocal that opens its wings to the heavens. Touchingly, this short piece was written after the birth of Price’s daughter ~ a tiny human of innocence whose future could well soar like Davidson’s singing. For all its evoking the ghosts of the past, the enthrallingly multi-layered Tender Symmetry closes by turning to the future. We are increasingly shying away from the physical world in favour of the virtual, but if we continue to cherish our shared spaces, we will continue connecting ~ and creating new stories. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)