Essay – Michael Bird

Opened Spaces

The bell-like note that begins Invisible Cities pulses and spreads out, gathering up its own echo in a kind of wall-dissolving expansiveness which is also a centripetal, attention-focusing call. This is a paradox of spatial sound – the feeling of limitlessness, of being poised to move off in any direction and to any distance, and at the same time stillness, the desire to stay put and listen.

Graham Lynch’s music contains many moments like this, often created with the touch of not-so-familiar instruments – the Tibetan singing bowl in Invisible Cities, or the alto flute in Moon Cycle, the clavichord in Admiring Yoro Waterfall. But he is also (another paradox) a composer of wonderful pieces in the tango nuevo idiom that demand to be danced, or where the emotional colour is vivid as the desire to move and to dance.

On the one hand, the singing bowl and its associations of meditative austerity. On the other, the limber, sensuous movements of the dance floor. Lynch’s orchestral scores and tango music could be perceived as opposites – the deep canyons of orchestral sound and luminous, vertical symphonic surfaces in Invisible Cities, and in the tango pieces for small mixed ensembles, an onward, horizontal momentum – but they aren’t. What connects these two sound-worlds is their spatial dimension or theatrum.

Like Invisible Cities, which takes its title from the novel by Italo Calvino, Red and White Domes (from a Paul Klee painting) alludes to imaginary architecture, as in a sense does Stars in a High Wind (a phrase adapted from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), in which the title calls up images of the celestial dome while in the piece itself the flute articulates a mood of nocturnal clearsightedness and aerial depth. Among Lynch’s other titles referring to specific paintings are the Hanging-Cloud Bridge and Admiring Yoro Waterfall (Katsushika Hokusai) and The Pale Dancer (Edvard Munch).

Important to remember, then, that while three-dimensional space is a virtual element in music (as distinct from the practical element of time) it is just as virtual in painting. A painting’s capacity to trigger a chemical alteration in our sense of where we are and what kind of space we are about to launch into is not so different to the summons of the singing bowl or the tango-voice of the bandoneon. Lynch does not choose visual titles simply as an illustrative parallel to his music; the relationship between the two informs the whole process of composition – as it can in reverse for painters. Klee, himself an accomplished musician, understood that the things we have least resistance to believing at the instant they happen to us are dreams. Hence the clarity and conviction of his dreamlike virtual spaces.

Which brings me back to the idea of the theatrum, the arena for action. I am drawn to composers, of whom Purcell is a great exemplar, who wrote for both the temple and the theatre, sacred and secular spaces, and whose drama carries through both arenas with equal intensity. If the world of contemporary ‘classical’ music inherits the mantle of high seriousness from the religious music of earlier centuries, Lynch’s work in tango nuevo I think belongs in this dual tradition.

There’s a parallel between the tango nuevo movement and the way Baroque composers tested their art on gypsy riffs like ‘La folia’ or the sarabande, the tango of its day, which began life in South America as the zarabanda before migrating to Spain in the 1580s, where the dance was briefly banned on the grounds of obscenity. Lynch’s tango writing isn’t some sort of relaxation from the more demanding task of classical composition but an extension of the depth and lucidity of his orchestral writing into an alternative dramatic arena in which the confluence of European and non-European musical heritage derives from a long tradition of such exchanges. No coincidence that the archetypal tango instrument, the bandoneon, crossed the Atlantic into South American popular culture and one of the world’s most exuberantly sexual dance styles from a blameless early existence as an organ-substitute in Lutheran church music.

Since I’ve drawn attention to instrumentation, I want to say that unlike a lot of New York School music, for example, in which dance-type rhythms are also pretty integral, Lynch’s work is very closely attentive to the subtleties of individual instruments. I’m particularly attracted to his beautiful writing for flute and saxophone, as in the early piece Moon Cycle or the more recent The Pale Dancer, which seems to be shaped by the nature of a saxophone quartet’s sound, as dance refines the shapes the human body can make. It’s a question not only of knowing what an instrument can do but of understanding how players feel about it.

The Lynch household is full of instruments. There are harps, mandolins, guitars, violins, wooden flutes, saxophones, clarinets, pianos, drums, singing bowls – every time you look, another seems to have appeared, and all these instruments are picked up and played by someone at one time or another. A 1920s German bandoneon is the latest arrival, a black-and-steel compendium of outlandish chords, tracked down over the Internet in Argentina and brought back to Europe like a defrocked pastor. So many voices. And each note of each one of them opens into a different space.

Michael Bird

Writer and broadcaster