scheller grain acte prealable

Przemysław Scheller (b. 1990)
Dead Grain (Obumarłe ziarno)
Imaginary Landscape
(for chamber orchestra and electronics) (2015)
The Little Match Girl (for string orchestra) (2019)
A road marked with dead grain (for clarinet and string orchestra) (2020)
Concerto for harp and string orchestra (2020)
Andrzej Ciepliński (clarinet), Anna Scheller (harp)
Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej/Szymon Bywalec 
Silesian Chamber Players/Wojciech Wantulok
rec. 2015, Concert Hall, Mons, Belgium & 2020, Filharmonia Śląska, Katowice, Poland
Acte Préalable AP0494 [51]

Przemysław Scheller has adopted a very particular approach to chamber orchestral sound. He studied with Uliana Bilan, Aleksander Lasoń and Philippe Hurel among others and only started composing at the age of 18. Just 15 years later he is currently Professor of Music Theory and Multimedia at the Silesian University in Katowice. He has rapidly established himself as an innovative composer of state-of-the-art electroacoustic music – his 2020 debut album Ukryte Światło (Hidden Light) involves remarkable manipulations of Gregorian Chant and bell sounds (it’s available via Bandcamp)– hot on its heels comes this monograph on Acte Préalable, the first release to be dedicated exclusively to Scheller’s (chamber) orchestral music.

A visit to Scheller’s page on Bandcamp or even his contributions to the guided meditation site Insight Timer will confirm his fascination with the immersive properties of manipulated sound. Whilst a cursory listen-through to the four pieces on Dead Grain will superficially reveal some of the key elements of Scheller’s personal take on spectralism the deeper familiarity with each piece that comes with repetition will likely draw the ear towards Scheller’s nuanced application of colour. His stylistic fingerprints seem to include a preoccupation with timbral quality (which frequently manifests itself at an almost granular level) as well as an interest (exhibited in a couple of these works) in  allowing listeners to observe (or even participate in) a kind of internal ‘processional’.

This is evident in the impressive Imaginary Landscape which seemingly owes nothing to John Cage’s sequence of five pieces which share its name. It is the one work on the album to employ live electronics. Here Scheller attempts to pictorialise a dream-like inner world dominated by a darkness which is only illuminated infrequently. The listener’s experience of this soundscape (and its stately progress) gradually desensitises them to the emergence of distinct sonic details. Growling low timbres (strings and bass-clarinet), siren-like glissandi and shimmering winds meld to form an agreeably creepy twelve minute soundscape whose unreality is only amplified by the subtly deployed electronic element. A horn seems to play an important role throughout. Imaginary Landscape is rich in incidental detail – occasional frissons of piano sound seek to temporarily restore a short-lived reality, whilst fuzzy clarinet distortions weirdly mimic a human voice. Electronic pulsings briefly materialise to provide a momentary yet disorienting sense of rhythm. There’s a lot going on in Imaginary Landscape and its twelve minutes flies by. It was recorded live in Belgium (a couple of coughs from the audience are regrettable) – the space seems agreeably resonant and the members of Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej are most certainly committed to the cause of this literally entrancing piece.

The other three works on the programme require a string orchestra, and in each case the sixteen-strong Silesian Chamber Players prove more than equal to Scheller’s taxing demands. The glassy, chill and creaking textures which open The Little Match Girl seem to have been designed to evoke atmosphere and gently caress nerve-endings rather than convey a narrative, though convinced listeners will doubtless construct their own. In this piece Scheller demonstrates a genuine mastery of architecture and pacing as well as a connoisseur’s ear for novel string timbre. Peculiar chords and unexpected progressions contribute to a sense of unalloyed strangeness and almost palpable cold. The playing is meticulous throughout, the recording precise without being dry.

The spell cast by The Little Match Girl overlaps into A road marked with dead grain for strings with clarinet, whose role is certainly significant although I would baulk at characterising this superb work as a concerto. The carefully chosen title suggests the navigation of a pre-ordained route, and the flow of the piece is palpable, seemingly determined and led by Andrzej Ciepliński’s plaintive yet purposeful clarinet whose tones emerge almost imperceptibly from the string bed. Agnieszka Nowak-Zych’s cogent booklet essay notes that the reference to dead grain alludes to the biblical Parable of the Sower and indirectly to processes of growth and regeneration which require fertile ground thus providing a parallel reading of this thorny yet exquisite piece.

The layout Scheller has devised for the forces required to perform his Concerto for harp and strings is anything but conventional.  One group of strings surrounds the soloist whilst the remaining players are placed among the audience, “symbolically intertwining” with it according to the note. The phrase implies that these players are moving about, which is important since the composer has in effect devised the concerto as an allusion to a living organism. An illustration of Scheller’s concept is the reference in the note to ortostichia (the arrangement of leaves). The concerto is divided into two movements of equal duration. The first is rather glacial and fragmentary, coloured by the genteel, restrained contributions of the soloist Anna Scheller which intermittently seem to be at risk of being inundated by the  dense string sounds. The second movement is more dynamic, agitated even. The rapid, irregular string chords at its outset seem harsh and unpredictable until the harp’s first entry; in due course they are quelled. A conventionally beautiful passage from the soloist is pitted against strange, avian flutings. In due course harp and strings seem to diverge and to pursue different agendas before the irregular, scything chords return and see out the work over the soloist’s vain attempts to be noticed. Agnieszka Nowak-Zych proposes that the concerto is the most obviously ‘spectralist’ of the four works on this disc. I’m not sure I would agree – there are moments of fierce arrhythmia in this piece which seem to be more obviously demanding of the listener’s attention than anything in the three other works; they are predominantly slower burning and arguably more deserving of the spectral label.

On the other hand, it is equally the case that all four works do in fact share many linguistic and coloristic features. Consequently it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Przemyslaw Scheller has arrived at a distinctive, identifiable style remarkably quickly. Each of these pieces embody almost tangible grace, restraint and proportion. They are performed with enthusiasm and precision and notwithstanding the odd caveat about audience noise and balance, the Acte Préalable sonics are perfectly agreeable. I shall certainly be keeping an interested eye (and ear) upon the future work of Mr Scheller and would encourage those readers whose curiosity has been piqued by my (very approximate) descriptions to acquire this disc.

Richard Hanlon

Help us financially by purchasing this through MWI