NICHOLAS VINES: ‘Torrid Nature Scenes’ = The Butcher of Brisbane; Economy of Wax; Torrid Nature Scene – Eliot Gattegno, saxophones/Adrienne Pardee & Paula Downes, sopranos/The Lobo, mezzo /Jessi Rosinksi, flute/Derek Mosloff, viola/Franziska Huhn, harp/ Callithumpian Consort/Stephen Drury – Navona Records NV5915 [5/28/13] (Distr. by Naxos) 61:04 ****:

Nicholas Vines is a young Australian composer who has worked with some of the best cutting edge new music ensembles in the world including Alarm Will Sound, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a number of more traditional classical ensembles, such as the Sydney Symphony. His music is wildly creative and entertaining. It may take a listen or two to begin to get into his offerings but, ultimately, they are vivid, cheeky, sometimes amusing and always unique.

This album gives us a good introduction to his unique vision. The Butcher of Brisbane for saxophonist and ensemble takes its inspiration from a series of episodes, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, from the 1977 season of the iconic British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. There are three ‘Acts’ with a Prologue, Epilogue and Interludes in which the solo saxophone takes the role of the show’s “anti-hero” of the title, apparently. This character can appear as a ghost, a god or a megalomaniac and the saxophone plays with and against the ensemble in a wild series of somewhat connected musical moments to piece together a battle of wits. Vines calls this music a “Carnival for solo saxophone and chamber ensemble” and I cannot disagree. This is a highly entertaining and rather wild ride; almost like looking at a series of “side-shows” wherein the saxophonist/protagonist demonstrates a variety of feats and moods. Eliot Gattegno, saxophone, and the Callithumpian Consort do a great job!

Economy of Wax for soprano and ensemble is written in reflection of the 2009 bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. Soprano Jane Sheldon had commissioned a number of composers to write pieces that are connected to the concepts discussed in Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Vines’ contribution to this cycle is the present Economy of Wax, after the observations by Darwin on how bees make honeycomb. The texts are taken from Darwin’s own notes on the subject and Vines has very cleverly and creatively used the mathematical components of the actual honeycomb in the harmonic fluctuations that appear every twelve seconds. Additionally, the flute and viola create a shimmering series of tremolos, trills and flourishes to simulate the activity of the bees. Adrienne Pardee, soprano, performs very well and this piece is definitely fascinating.

Torrid Nature Scene is nearly indescribable but a lot of fun to listen to. The composer notes that Torrid Nature Scene is “at its core a squelchy, romping obscenity.” This is basically a song cycle for two singers (soprano and mezzo) and chamber ensemble after a series of seven poems by Andrew Robbie. Robbie is a fellow Australian composer, theoretician and writer. The texts to Torrid Nature Scene are hard to get through in that they are constructed as sonnets and written in a style that is a rather bizarre imagery (and vocabulary) laden amalgam. The singers act almost as narrators and the music is suitably exotic in places and nearly nightmarish in others. I do think the text is tough to analyze (for me) but the music and the total effect is compelling, nearly surreal. Kudos to sopranos Paula Downes and Thea Lobo for handling the appreciable vocal gymnastics and odd moods required.

I do not know a lot about Nicholas Vines but this is a good place to start. He has a wildly creative vision of a new type of “classical” music that is not afraid to echo jazz improvisation, elements of an older formalism and just about “anything goes.” I think this does require some careful, patient listening but you will be at least impressed with the impulsive creativity and sound painting. It is all very attention getting in places and nearly “torrid” on the whole.

—Daniel Coombs