Joanna Baillie (b.1973) and Cassandra Miller (b.1976) sketched sounds ranging from field recordings of urban Berlin, where Baillie lives, to birdsong of North American thrushes, hailing from Miller’s birthplace in Canada, in a concert presented by the Dutch Ives Ensemble now celebrating their 35th season. Performing in the Muziekgebouw’s Donderdag Avond series, the Ives Ensemble continued their reanimated tour following 2020’s interruption now travel restrictions have been relaxed. A unique pairing of voices, Baillie and Miller reframe how natural sounds can be channelled through classically positioned works for the concert hall.

Joanna Bailie
© No credit required

In her works, Baillie demonstrates an integrated approach to compositional voice including both instrumental and electronic elements, written in perfectly devised balance. From above and far away deploys an exquisite sounding electronic track, in counterpoint with strings and piano tutti. The materials forming the structure of the track are an etheric skyscape, hewn from both distant and immanently scrutinised motorway field recordings.

What is stunning is the placement of the sonic element. Subtle throughout, the prism of the field recording undeniably is the focal point and it is refracted through the instrumental layering. Judicious balance of the sonic texture with the instrumental, these two elements conjoin and create – in the classical concert hall – a classical piece of music, persuasively blending both elements in elegant contiguity with each other.

Baillie’s musical language is itself subtle. Shades of sound, instrumental and electronic, blend fluidly to create a ‘whole’, always just out of reach. The enigma of this ‘not quite to be captured’ sound is precisely its strength. The quality of produced electronic sound materials, their shaping and weaving together with instruments gently unfolding; shades of intention are also shaped, never intended to be quite captured. From above and far away is beguiling and should be played widely. 

Cassandra Miller
© Andrew Parker

Originally written for the Montreal-based Bozzini Quartet, a French-Canadian thread came firmly into view in Cassandra Miller’s Warblework. In his pre-concert talk, artistic director John Snijders said quite simply that “Cassandra’s works should be more widely programmed and heard”. Skeletally stripped back, Miller’s underplayed language, transmuting the distinctive voicings of four species of thrush, belies its sheer excellence in execution. A muted and sophisticated quality in each movement’s compositional exposition demands a return and repeat listening. Warblework generates an image larger in expanse than initially we grasp, and from the simplest of ideas of channelling birdsong. Warblework is subtle. In each movement it is very subtly, very large, and this is its power.

Completing the programme were Baillie’s Artificial Environments 1-5 and Miller’s Perfect Offering, both of which possessed divergent formal impetuses, remaining bound together in their gaming with sonic materials. In Baillie’s Artificial Environments her own spoken electronic interventions playfully counter the ensemble. Texts similarly presented in the classic electroacoustic idiom with generally a male narrator, Michel Chion’s conception of the acousmêtre, “a powerful master who can only be heard, who often sees and knows all”; Baillie’s own interventions demystify both, in placing herself, the composer, centre stage. Simultaneously the content is playful in its vibe, and colloquial in how chatting is used as part of the performance from the stage.

Miller's Perfect Offering was a sumptuous piece to finish with. Bells in piano and tutti, in differently shaped mouldings, with a large bell peal, played by Snijders on piano. Perfect Offering presented the most traditional conception of tutti, exquisitely and enjoyably played by the Ives Ensemble. With the three preceding pieces providing a more experimental fragrance to the evening, Perfect Offering brought the programme to a close with a feeling of proper completion.