The debut CD of chamber and instrumental pieces by Welsh composer David Braid avoids the demanding compositional density of much contemporary music. Instead, it has a more direct quality, generating atmosphere with a sparse, textural clarity, while demonstrating a keen interest in form.
Morning, for soprano and string quartet, makes an arresting opening, with shimmering tremolando strings and the searing purity of Grace Davidson’s vocal line; the work exhibits a paradoxical combination of intensity and attenuation, in which the words of a Spanish sonnet are strung out over twelve minutes of music. The more economical compositions for solo piano are true to their titles: Aria is vocally inspired with an airiness to the compositional texture, while Three-part invention evokes a vivid sense of technical construction in angular lines. Sonata for Quartet (actually a piano trio plus clarinet) makes a gradual progression from formless sonority to a satisfyingly structural and energetic fugue.
Braid studied composition with Robert Saxton in Oxford, after training at the Royal College of Music and a year spent in Poland at the Krakow Academy. The sleeve notes suggest that Oxford was in fact something of a wrong turning. “The constant analysis and writing about music fatally dampened my enthusiasm, turning something I loved into a mere job,” he writes.
But in conversation he is animated about other sources of intellectual inspiration encountered in Oxford, such as David Deutsch, whose ideas on the physics of time-travel struck a particular chord. Braid’s thesis was on the nature and perception of time in music, and he talks about composers in a way that is arrestingly ahistorical, yoking together Dowland and Lutoslawski as key influences whose approach to composition he sees as “pretty similar” in the way they construct musical lines. “Four hundred years is nothing,” he says, compared to geological or astrophysical timescales, collapsing centuries of musical history with disarming ease, and maintaining that essential human continuities remain more important than cultural baggage or historical periodisation.
I asked Braid about his recently premiered work for Chappelle du Roi, an early-music vocal ensemble who had commissioned contemporary settings of religious texts to be paired with counterparts from the Renaissance (Braid’s Alma Redemptoris sung alongside that of Guerrero). The linear writing of musical counterpoint — sparse and slow-moving harmonies where the interest is in the interwoven melodic lines — is for him “style-neutral”, like fugue, a form equally amenable to the idioms of Bach or Shostakovich. I asked if he belonged to the new canon of honorary Renaissance composers like John Tavener or Arvo Pärt. Although insisting he hadn’t written enough in this idiom to qualify, Braid is now writing for early instruments (he plays the lute, and reminisced enthusiastically about Oxford’s Bate collection).
For all his interest in sci-fi and quantum physics, there is something engagingly old-fashioned about Braid’s approach, in his disdain for the uncompromising extremes of “hairy-chested modernism” and his calligraphic pleasure in pen-and-ink composition without the aid of a computer. He dislikes the notion that listeners have to fasten their seatbelts for modern music or scour the programme notes for elucidation, and urges his audience: “Just listen, as you would to Schubert.”
Josie Dixon (University College, 1983), is a publishing and research training consultant, with more than 60 university clients in the UK, Europe and the USA.