Emmy award-winning composer Michael Price’s second album with Erased Tapes, Tender Symmetry, was released on August 31st 2018. The ambitious musical project takes in a series of iconic National Trust locations across the UK as its inspiration, turning them into unlikely recording spaces. Michael and a host of musicians and collaborators — including soprano Grace Davidson (featured on Max Richter’s Sleep) and Shards (the choir on Nils Frahm’s All Melody) — travelled across the country in pursuit of places far removed from the traditional recording studio to create seven unique and moving pieces, straddling the past and the future.
Joining Michael across the diverse locations were a hand-picked group of musicians and collaborators. Shards choir (pictured at Fountains Abbey) performed for both Fountains and Sandham, bringing their unique vocal character to those sites. Cello soloist, Peter Gregson played not only within the choir in Fountains, and the quartet in Willow Road, but also with a hard hat in the tunnels of Fan Bay, along with Shards director and solo singer, Kieran Brunt.
The Manchester Collective strings provide the drive and emotional power of Speke and Quarry Bank (seen in the video below) and soprano soloist Grace Davidson is accompanied by birdsong outside Speke Hall, and soars above the orchestra in the final track, Shade of Dreams.
“For Tender Symmetry, I stopped admiring and started participating in these buildings. This began as an exploration of writing and recording out in the world beyond the studio. I am interested in where we build our homes in an increasingly virtual world and the spirit of place we feel as we walk our local streets, our schools, temples and public spaces. Taking inspiration from a place, and the stories it told, then going back to that place to record, sometimes in less than ideal conditions, made the two-year adventure much more like shooting a film than making a record”
Acoustics varied wildly as the artists moved from places designed with sound in mind to locations which demanded the use of miners’ helmets for light and battery-powered sound gear. Produced by Michael Price and Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths, the final recordings carry the genuinely unique sonic blueprints and spirit of each place – from the birdsong in the courtyard at Speke Hall to the steam-driven cotton mill accompaniment at Quarry Bank.
“When we recorded the piece at Fan Bay in the World War II shelter deep inside the chalk cliffs of Dover, Peter Gregson’s cello wasn’t at all happy with the clammy, dank conditions; but to be in the tunnels where young soldiers spent months on end, constantly on alert for incoming bombers, gave the recording an extraordinarily intimate, moving quality. At each site, the human mixed with the historical, and the natural environment of each space comes through with each piece. I tried to leave an imprint of each location on the record.”
While each piece of music is named after the location in which it was created, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience courses through them as well. Soprano Grace Davidson sings Blake’s poignant words about nature, religion and the industrial revolution on several of the pieces including the astoundingly beautiful album closer Shade Of Dreams, written after the birth of Michael’s daughter.
“The final piece, Shade of Dreams, is part of a group of pieces I wrote for the birth of our daughter, Emilie. It, like all the works on the album, takes its text from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, in this case, A Cradle Song. As much as Tender Symmetry is about the past, it is firmly about the future, and all of our shared futures.”
What was so impressive three years ago was the coalescing of disparate ideas into a coherent whole, centred upon Price’s piano. For this new album, incorporating strings, chorus, soprano and assorted electronica, he was inspired by a diverse range of locations across the country, nearly all of them National Trust properties.
However, any notion that the result would be a series of bucolic country house pastorals is dispelled by the fact that the places included a Dover World War Two shelter, as well as an eighteenth century cotton mill still operating as an industrial heritage site. Dark and satanic the latter might have been originally, but here Price ingeniously integrates its heavy lumbering sounds into his own “Quarry Bank” composition splendidly played by the Manchester Collective.
In fact, William Blake’s verse is threaded through many of the album’s seven tracks, as soprano Grace Davidson sings extracts from Songs of Innocence and of Experience at key points, emphasizing natural beauty (and its transience) as well as the incipient industrialization that was a feature of Blake’s age.
The range of acoustic conditions is considerable, and Price exploits this to remarkable effect. For instance, the opener was recorded in Sandham Memorial Chapel, known for its extraordinarily powerful Stanley Spencer paintings inspired by the artist’s own World War One experiences. The resounding location enhances the sonic effect of the Shards Choir (with whom Nils Frahm has also worked) in particular.
In places, some rather more overt stylistic link between a building and the music is conveyed, as on “Willow Road” where a string quartet delivers an appealingly (and not oppressively) modernist piece very much in keeping with the architectural forwardness of the 1939 home designed by the radically innovative architect Erno Goldfinger.
Both as an exploration of acoustic potentialities and as an illustration of Michael Price’s compositional talent covering a range of instrumental and vocal styles, Tender Symmetry is a fine album. For those who might want to explore beautiful, occasionally challenging but always accessible, neo-classical music, it could prove a highly rewarding experience.
Tender Symmetry shares two things with the latest release from Nils Frahm: a choir called Shards and an infatuation with the recording space. Just as his label-mate did back in January with All Melody, Michael Price’s new LP focuses almost as much on the place where the music was captured as on the music itself. But this is far from the contemporary, polished interior of Frahm’s Berlin-based Saal 3. It’s not even a single space at all. It’s several, each delving into a dim corner of England’s history.
Price seems absorbed by the idea of places radiating life ~ buildings or exteriors with ghosts that impart historic tales to anyone who takes the time to listen. With 2015’s remarkable Entanglement LP, the UK composer sought to evoke the magic of finding a gem in a dusty Berlin record store in the 1930s. He’s now taken that concept a strident step further. Working with the UK’s National Trust charity, Price scouted seven locations around the land as an experiment in inspiration and composition far removed from a clinical studio. After writing a piece for each place, he returned to those locations with musicians various (including cellist Peter Gregson) to record in situ. As such, Tender Symmetry contains both poetic and literal imprints of locations as diverse as a cotton mill and a tunnel complex.
‘Taking inspiration from a place, and the stories it told, then going back to that place to record, sometimes in less than ideal conditions, made the two-year adventure much more like shooting a film than making a record.’
– Michael Price
Price recollects a scenario that befits a man who has won prestigious awards for his film and TV soundtracks. How far he has come, from heightening the mood of others’ stories to being a vehicle for the often-forgotten stories of England’s history. “Fan Bay” (each piece is named after its location) is sombre and minimal, its soft organ tones and pensive cello trading melody with a dulcet male vocal. (Yes, the operatic vocals return from Entanglement, giving literal voice to empty rooms, dusty furniture, forgotten corners.) The aura of “Fan Bay” is intensified by its location ~ a shelter carved into the white cliffs of Dover during World War II, in which young soldiers spent months of end, fearing their end.
The near-11-minute “Speke” is the record’s longest and most dynamic piece, moving through several movements from graceful to grandiose as though touring us through various rooms of the restored Tudor hall in which it was recorded. Soprano Grace Davidson imparts a mournful soliloquy while a gathering of birds eavesdrop from the courtyard; a swelling bed of murmuring strings pauses before erupting into a crescendo of emotionally entangled polyphony. Recorded in a memorial chapel, choir piece “Sandham” was inspired by the murals of acclaimed Great War artist Stanley Spencer that are housed there. Like an overture, it sets the tonal narrative of the record superbly, morphing from atmospheric tension to gratification. More-abrupt changes of mood are aptly found in “Willow Road”, recorded at the London home of architect Ernő Goldfinger where quaint domesticity is juxtaposed with Brutalist sensibilities. The chamber piece accordingly switches from quiet pizzicato to a bouncing, ostinato-based rhythm, before a creeping tension emerges, in marked contrast to the faint opening sounds of children playing outside the house.
The record is a quieter and more sober set than Entanglement, prioritising atmosphere above all. The exception is “Quarry Bank”, inspired by an 18th century cotton mill. Partially recorded deep in the steam house itself, chopping violins gradually set the machine in motion before exploding into life with a frenetic ostinato, driven by a chugging cello rhythm. A complaining screech signals the abrupt halt of machinery, and suddenly all lights are extinguished. Groping in the darkness, we find children at work ~ some as young as eight years old. Not only do they work here ~ long, physical days ~ they live here too. The strings intone a slow lament that gradually rises in a protracted shriek of defiance ~ the record’s ugliest and most vital moment.
In this and “Fan Bay”, which follows, the record encourages cogitation on the enforced loss of childhood innocence throughout history’s revolutions and wars. Innocence too often considered cheap, too quickly becoming experience. It is this theme that Price also explores through the lyrics that decorate all but one of the compositions. The vocalists sing extracts from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the poetry collection that reframed Milton’s “Paradise” and “Fall” states to highlight the pernicious influences of the Church and the Industrial Revolution on children.
‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’
– The Tyger, William Blake
But Tender Symmetry is yet a further reframing ~ one that imbues the narrative with optimism. (The title itself is a flipping of the ‘fearful symmetry’ phrase in The Tyger.) The set closes with the wonderful “Shade of Dreams”, whose simple string melody intensifies and deepens alongside a vocal that opens its wings to the heavens. Touchingly, this short piece was written after the birth of Price’s daughter ~ a tiny human of innocence whose future could well soar like Davidson’s singing. For all its evoking the ghosts of the past, the enthrallingly multi-layered Tender Symmetry closes by turning to the future. We are increasingly shying away from the physical world in favour of the virtual, but if we continue to cherish our shared spaces, we will continue connecting ~ and creating new stories. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Michael Price and Robert Raths
Francesco Donadello at Vox-Ton, Berlin
Andreas “Lupo” Lubich at Calyx, Berlin