Peter Gregson: Touch
Sono Luminus

Touch, the third album by Peter Gregson and follow-up to 2014's Lights in the Sky, is not your average classical recording. The cellist/composer is part of a new breed of composers who are eminently comfortable writing music featuring conventional instruments and electronics. In the case of Touch, eight exquisite instrumentals arranged for cello, piano, string orchestra (the eight-member Inscape Chamber Orchestra), and analogue synthesizers (Minimoog Voyager, Moog Sub Phatty, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Polivoks) are featured.

Interestingly, Gregson opts not to encumber the eight pieces with programmatic meaning. On the inner sleeve, he states, “Composers are often asked what their music is about, especially with instrumental music such as this where there is no lyric to guide you. Just because music is slow, doesn't mean that it is sad; just because it is fast, doesn't make it happy; just because it is major, or minor, doesn't make it ‘up or ‘down.' Where music isn't objectively about something, it becomes amorphous, changing shape and purpose to fit the ear and mind of the listener. It has many lives and many meanings, none of them right and none of them wrong, and I think that's magical.”

He's not, of course, the first composer to question the inherent properties of music and whether meanings can be gleaned that extend beyond music's formal design. It's an aesthetic issue with a long history, one that goes as far back as Plato's Republic, for example, where, in a Benjamin Jowett translation, we find Socrates arguing in favour of banishing two Lydian modes for being “harmonies expressive of sorrow” (398e) (in C.D.C. Reeve's translation, they're referred to as the “lamenting harmonies”). But for the purposes of this review, we'll indulge Gregson and refrain from burdening Touch with projected meanings, though I will note that there are clear differences in mood and presentation between the pieces; put simply, while the album material is characterized by refinement throughout, there are evident contrasts from one setting to the next. To begin with, there's a modesty and restraint about the recording that's endearing; it's a concise fifty minutes in length, and each one of its eight magnificent tracks is titled with but a single word.

As one might expect from a recording often featuring Gregson alone, the music is intimate in nature and perfectly tailored for late-night listening. Heavily weighted with synthesizers, “Found” emerges softly, teasing the listener with alluring textures until the cello enters halfway through, its vocal-like expressiveness in marked contrast to the cool timbres of the keyboards. More animated by comparison is “Time,” which derives its motorik pulsation from a clockwork array of arpeggio patterns over which the cello glides. The beauty of his playing is captured to stunning effect in “Chorale,” where he layers multiple cellos into a five-minute setting of powerful melancholic character, and as affectingly in “Turn” and “Lost,” deeply affecting settings that make the strongest possible arguments on behalf of his gifts as a composer and musician.

The five pieces on which Inscape appears are especially luscious, though that's also not surprising. The fuller presentation of strings on “Cycle,” “Lost,” and “Held” makes for an undeniably stirring result, and synthesizers and strings are combined in the towering title track in a way that makes the acoustic-synthetic fusion seem like the most natural thing in the world. In keeping with the preferred view of their creator, these instrumentals might be abstract and free of extra-musical meaning, but they're no less compelling for being so.

October 2015