The U.K.’s 12-strong Icebreaker ensemble has been performing for over thirty years now, and is doing a victory lap of sorts in 2021 with the release of months singles from its extensive repertoire. Some pieces are old, some new, some unreleased, and the composers run the gamut of modern composition. We look in on the project at its halfway point, as today the sixth of the series will be unveiled.
The opening salvo: a new version of Graham Fitkin‘s “Mesh,” composed for the ensemble soon after it had formed. It’s a powerful composition, scored for three saxophones, three keyboards, electric guitar, electric bass and two flutes, which leaves two performers with their hands empty to cheer on the rest. The driving tempo sets the stage, while the stop-start nature of the piece creates quick bursts of anticipation. There’s nothing in the piece that suggests it was written in 1991, which is to say it has stood the test of time. (For comparison’s sake, the top hit of 1991 was Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It for You”), followed by Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”; we’ll let you be the judge how well these songs have aged.) Every time the saxophones and flutes re-emerge, there’s another burst of adrenaline; even the quiet parts (3:50) are brief.
Next is a newly remastered version of Steve Martland‘s “Re-Mix,” whose title is a bit confusing as it’s the actual name of the track. Martland, who ran the Factory Classical part of Factory Records, passed away in 2013, which makes this re-release bittersweet. “Re-Mix” has been recorded many times over the years, lending itself wonderfully to choreography. The lurking bass provides the impression of film noir, while the brass blasts suggest a chase scene. Add an electronic beat and this could well have jumped right over to Factory Prime.
Co-founder John Godfrey has written a number of pieces for the ensemble, and it’s fun to take shots at deciphering the acronym “S.U.S.Y.W.I.M.P.S.” Dating back to 1994, the jazzy recording blends alto sax with piano and bass guitar. Of the six recordings shared so far, it’s the most avant-garde, yet retains its accessibility, like “Mesh” pausing for reflection, though for longer periods, in the third and sixth minutes. Then there a fun surprise as Icebreaker plays “Nautilis,” the opening track from Anna Meredith‘s Varmints (2017), arranged by artistic director James Poke. The low blasts and steady tempo draw lines back to “Mesh” and “Re-mix,” suggesting something like a signature sound, while the late counter-tempo of the drum adds a frisson of tension.
Poke also arranges Julia Wolfe‘s “Big Beautiful Dark and Scary,” whose scales suggest a high-rise building or the screech of sirens ~ appropriate associations as the piece was written in response to the 9/11 attacks. Even without this knowledge, the piece comes across as harrowing: a reflection of the horror of that day. The strings rise ever higher as the piece progresses, while chaos builds in a steam of dissonance. After this, it’s a relief to hear the surf guitar introduction of Bang on a Can co-founders Michael Gordon & David Lang, a previously-unreleased piece that was written for the Royal Ballet in 1996. (No tonal wrenching is intended as these are monthly singles). Ironically, by the end of the piece, newly anxious elements place the tone in the same realm as Wolfe.
The series is a colorful overview of the ensemble, as well as an introduction to gifted composers listeners may not yet have encountered. With artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and JLin already on Icebreaker’s resume, the series’ second half already feels secure. (Richard Allen)