Few products of the imagination have had the endurance of the mythological figures of the classical Mediterranean world. Whether as archetypes, allegorical figures, proxies for natural forces, or just examples of behavior not to emulate, the gods, heroes, and anti-heroes of the Greek world have gone through many metamorphoses and shifts in significance, but through it all they have been kept alive through a centuries-long tradition of commentary, interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation. With his musical cycle Celestial Forms and Stories, composer John Aylward makes his own contribution to the tradition via Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Italo Calvino’s analyses of Ovid’s narrative style.
What Aylward was most interested in was the structure of Ovid’s work as Calvino described it—a set of simple elements undergoing combinations and transformations—and crafted a suite of five movements based on that principle. The suite is realized here in a series of excellent performances by members of Klangforum Wien in various combinations.
The opening movement is Daedalus (2016) for a quartet of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin and cello. Daedalus casts its elements as melodic fragments distributed among the four instruments, often taking the form of a single line passing through a spectrum of instrumental colors. Aylward handles unpitched timbral effects in a similar manner, juxtaposing air notes, pops, and snap pizzicato to create coherent aggregates. Mercury (2014) follows with the same instrumentation and hence covers similar timbral territory. Its sound is skittering and driven by underlying trills and glissandi; its arrangement is as a coincidence of soloists, with each instrument pursuing independent lines ultimately tied together by overlapping dynamics. Ephemera, also from 2014, is for the duo of cello and bass clarinet. It continues and expands on the atmosphere created by Mercury, employing some of the same gestures while exploiting the dramatic effects facilitated by the timbral differences of these two instruments of close compass. Despite the minimal instrumentation, the piece has a full, almost lush, sound. Narcissus (2018) is for a seven-piece ensemble of flutes, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, string trio of violin, viola, and cello and percussion. Appropriately enough, the piece creates a sonic mirror effect with repeated and varied lines reflected back and forth among the instruments. The tuned percussion add a nice anchoring presence to the winds and strings. The last movement is Ananke (2019), named for the goddess of necessity—the most powerful figure in Greek mythology. Aylward scores the piece with the same instrumentation as Narcissus, but with piano substituting for percussion and playing a key role in driving the music. Ananke is urgent, forceful, insistent, and altogether compelling—like its namesake.
Celestial Forms and Stories follows Angelus Novus, Aylward’s 2020 album for voice and chamber ensemble. Like Angelus Novus, Celestial Forms is an ambitious work that aims for thematic and structural coherence and like Angelus Novus, it succeeds—and in doing so embodies the ancient Greek quality of arete: “excellence.”