'This is distinctive, pungent music that demands close attention' Guardian 2005


Taking Flight


Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times Record Review (February 2001)

To judge from these chamber works, the Australian-born composer Sadie Harrison has an original imagination that expresses itself in a fluent, thoughtfully poetic language. The 20-minute string quartet Taking Flight (1999), played with poise by the Kreutzer, is a delicate labyrinth of sound echoing the psychological journey, Harrison says, of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, though much less darkly. Indeed, there's real sensitivity to her music, for all its rigour, Traceries (1997), for violin (Peter Sheppard Skaerved) and piano (Aaron Shorr), evokes the imagery of gothic architecture; Arcosolia (1999) plays on the meaning of its title, which refers to a medieval burial place; and Aster (1995), six short classical Greek texts sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers with flute and Strings, makes thoughtful reference to the passing of time and the fatalistic nature of love.

Classical London (February 2001) Disc of the Month

This is said to be the first recording devoted to music by Sadie Harrison, and it shows her to have a compelling, distinctive, and passionate compositional voice. The disc features chamber music, including works for string quartet, violin and piano, solo piano, and soprano, flute and string trio.Sadie Harrison was born in Australia in 1965, but studied at the University of Surrey, and later Kings College, London. She is currently a lecturer in composition and contemporary music at Goldsmiths College, The performances on this disc are generally very good, and the recorded sound excellent.

For those who feel that contemporary music often lacks heart, but who are also uncomfortable with a return to overtly tonal structures, this disc is definitely worth exploring.

Arnold Whittal, Gramophone (August 2001)

"Rhythm and lyricism held in perfect balance in a young Australian composer's rewarding programme of chamber and vocal works"

Sadie Harrison is in her mid-thirties; this, her first CD, concentrates on works composed between 1995 and 1999. Her accompanying notes reveal no hang-ups about musical influences and associations, and the mention of Bartok, Stravinsky and Birtwistle suggests a particular interest in strong rhythmic profiles and forceful, even abrasive textures. These are indeed to be heard, but the music also makes much of more lyrical, expansive writing, echoing at a distance the gentle - sometimes gently sinister - atmosphere of Debussy or Ravel.

The most substantial work, the single-movement, 20-minute Taking Flight for string quartet, demonstrates the full range of possibilities in Harrison's distinctive synthesis of sources. Here, the sheer diversity of constituent elements, ranging from boldly sculpted, Birtwistle-like patterning to 'a celebration of C major', leaves a question mark, not least about the viability of such smooth continuity between expansive reflectiveness and abrasive activity. I had some doubts, too, about the vocal writing in Aster, probably because Lesley-Jane Rogers, in this unsparingly immediate recording, seems more than a little effortful in places. But the three other works are exceptionally rewarding.

Traceries is a short yet spacious blend of song-like and dance-like writing, hauntingly allusive: while Impresa Amorosa has a beguiling simplicity and directness of utterance, and benefits from a tremendously characterful performance by Aaron Shorr. Arcosolia is a lament finding consolation in proliferating lines which reinforce the relevance of Harrison's impressionist heritage. Here again the playing is shapely and eloquent, the recording well-defined to a fault. This is a debut which leaves you eager to hear more from such a versatile and accomplished composer.

Mike Silverton, Folia 3:3 (April 2001)

The British Metier label is another of those steadfast one-man independents to which I am indebted for the discovery, inter alia of his remarkable Australian's music. Taking Flight, a string quartet, leads off the programme. It's performed by the Kreutzer quartet, whose recordings of four Catalan string quartets I covered in La Folia 3:2.

The title work, the string quartet Taking Flight, reveals two qualities which in less gifted hands would likely comprise an odd-fellowship wandering into incompatibility. The aural imagery sparkles. The music's mercuriality sets one adrift in a house of mirrors, and yet the tone is serious impinging on tragic - a marvel in the hearing, and thus, I think, a masterpiece.

Traceries, for violin and piano, Impresa Amorosa, for piano, and Arcosolia, for violin and piano, confirms that avian seriousness one detects in Taking Flight, a quality that seems on early acquaintance so essential an aspect of the composer's aesthetic. Its epigrammatic texts from the Greek Anthology, the six-part Aster, for soprano, flute and string quartet, reveals in several of its moments tissue-thin textures no less likely to shred as any of these wonderfully commendable creations. Great performances all, and nicely recorded.

Malcom Galloway, Tempo (April 2001)

This disc featuring a selection of chamber works for string quartet, violin and piano, solo piano and soprano, flute and string trio is the first recording devoted exclusively to music by this composer, and it shows her to have a compelling, distinctive, and passionate compositional voice.

The most impressive work on the disc is Taking Flight, written for the Kreutzer Quartet in 1999. This substantial work is characterised by delicate but unsettling sustained passages, punctuated by anguished dramatic gestures. The composer describes her intention in the quartet as being to 'open doors on the past', and many of the thematic and harmonic fragments manipulated in the piece are taken from either her own earlier music, or from works by Birtwistle, Debussy, Gerhard and Bartok. This is a work which I would strongly recommend to string quartets looking for contemporary repertoire that has direct emotional power.

Other works featured on the disc include Traceries and Arcosolia for violin and piano. Traceries was written in 1997 for the thirtieth birthday of Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the first violin of the Kreutzer Quartet and violinist on this recording. As with the string quartet, Traceries also acknowledges the influence of previous composers, in this case Stravinsky and Bach. Arcosolia, written in 1999 was dedicated to the composer's grandmother, who had died that year. An arcosolia is a burial chamber within a mediaeval church, and the main thematic material is based on the names A, C, G (Sol in the solfege system), and A, taken from the letters of the title.

Impresa Amorosa, a collection of short pieces for solo piano, performed by Aaron Shorr, again explores the contrast between quiet, static sections, and dramatic activity. The disc concludes with Aster for soprano, flute and string trio. The work was written in 1995, and sets six texts from an anthology of ancient Greek poems. Soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers gives and impressive performance, particularly in the subtle shading and colouring of her line.

The performances on this disc are generally very good, and the recorded sound excellent. Metier have a strong track record for producing recordings of young and little known contemporary composers, and deserve every support for continuing this important work. A highly recommendable recording.

HiFi News and Record Review (April 2001)

The violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved has worked with the Australian composer Sadie Harrison (b. 1965) for some years now, and he introduces and discusses the complicated allusions made and forms in her works and heir titles. She, in turn, describes her aims and unravels some of the wordplay involved with this collection of chamber works - respectively for quartet; violin/piano; pianoforte; violin/piano again; and soprano (sometimes unaccompanied) with flute/strings. The 20m title-track, which begins rather like Bartok in Burleske manner, might temporarily be set aside in favour of the more easily assimilated works, such as Traceries (after a window at Waltham Abbey - but without 'traces' of the Soldier's Tale) or the seven contrasting movements for piano, united musically by a tone-row, Impresa Amorosa, named after the secretive tokens exchanged between 15th-century jousting knights and their ladies - Labyrinth; Tortoises (Make haste slowly), etc. Music of real individuality and purpose, in excellent recordings."

Andy Hamilton, The Wire (May 2001)

Sadie Harrison's own Taking Flight aspires to a profounder kind of utterance. Arcosolia gets a second performance from Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Aaron Shorr. This is a more sharply-etched interpretation, and benefits from a dryer, clearer acoustic. The violin-piano configuration is also found on the delicate Traceries, and these pieces are, I reckon, the most successful. Born in Australia in 1965 and now based in London, this is the first disc devoted entirely to Harrison's music. Harrison's music is often beguiling and has vivid extra-musical resonances. She's in the category of what could be described as domesticated modernism - tonal composers who are aware of modernist gestures while aware of the danger of audience-alienation.

Taking Flight is a string quartet, performed with sensitivity by the Kreutzer Quartet. It transforms 'reminiscences' from composers such as Birtwistle, Roberto Gerhard and Debussy, and seems particularly suffused with Bartok's soundworld. Impresa Amorosa for solo piano is a set of characterful miniatures. The disc concludes with the exotic-sounding Aster for soprano, flute, violin, viola and cello, which sets poems from a Byzantine anthology. With a second disc shortly in production, Harrison is a composer to look out for.

Records International (August 2002)

Intense concentration is the first concept to come to mind when listening to this music. Not so much the concentration required of the listener, though there is undoubtedly such a requirement, as this is not 'easy listening' by a distance, but the sense of distillation, of the concentration of the essence of a musical argument. Sometimes the textures are exceedingly open and deceptively simple; sometimes a good deal of surface activity serves to illuminate the emotional intensity flowing just beneath. The combination of surface sensuality and intense and rigorous content produces tensions that constantly fluctuate and flow, drawing the listener into a slightly uneasy sound world, individual and unusual."

John Carmody, MCA Music Forum (August-September 2002)

Learn something new every day. It's a reason-able motto and it should keep the intellect alive. And if I'm tempted to think that I know — or know of- every significant Australian composer of concert music... well, openness to learning can shatter that illusion, too. That happened when I read the August 2001 issue of Gramophone. "Sadie Harrison (Australian-born and working in England) is in her mid- thirties," the review began. Who? Clearly, I had to get this CD and hear it: not simply to discover a new composer - vitalising though that is - but especially because that English reviewer made it sound so interesting. I was not disappointed. The biographical details are interesting. Born in Adelaide, Harrison studied at the University of Surrey, then pursued a doctorate, under NicolaLefanu at King's College, University of London, and now lectures in music at Goldsmiths College (London). She is published by the University of York Music Press and this CD (released by Metier Sound and Vision) is to be followed soon by a second, which promises to include After Colonna, Three Expositions and the quintet, No Title Required. That last title is interesting because on the CD to hand all of the titles seem so important - at least to the composer - as triggers for the pieces, their genesis, textures and sometimes their texts as well. The work which gives the CD its collective title, Taking Flight (1999), is a string quartet and it is splendidly played by the Kreutzer Quartet, its dedicatees. It has a clear, close recording which - like every other track -makes the listener immediately involved in the performance; this sense remains as the music unfolds: it is often intense but never dense, it is as if the light and air enter easily.

The composer's note lists her influences in this piece - Birtwistle, Debussy, Gerhard and Bartok, all of which may be true though in music (as in cinema) one can become excessively referential - but, having read that, simply ignored it and listened to the music. There are many soloistic flourishes in the score but what sustained my attention was Harrison's adroit contrasting, throughout the piece, of the forthright, rhythmic feature with which she began against moments of real stillness, as well as her capacity to achieve contrast at any given moment - a very high violin note, for example, soft and sustained, against a low ppp cello.

Traceries - that title refers to a Gothic windowin Whitby Abbey - is a delicate work for violin and piano which she wrote in 1997 for the thirtieth birthday of the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved. It is gentle and delicate and he plays it here with real love - clearly, it was a valued present. It is based on a harmonic series, dreamy but deliberate. Listening to it I began to hear a feature of Harrison's style: she seems to like beginning as if the music is wafting in from far away, then she becomes more emphatic and complex only to have it all fade or evaporate. This could become a mannerism but when the pieces are heard as individuals, it reveals a sense of the significance contrast in a work of art and how to achieve it.

Impresa Amorosa (1996) is a suite of seven generally very short onomatopoeic piano pieces, taking its name from the little pictorial love-tokens which romantic knights and their ladies exchanged. None of them is so long as to remotely outstay its welcome but sometimes one could fret about the risk that Harrison's music tends to become becalmed. In Candle ("One light suffices in the dark"), for instance, I felt that the slightest breeze would extinguish the candle and the music but it is a graceful nocturne. Arcosolia (1999) and Aster (1995) are written for mixed chamber ensembles. Aster is a little song-cycle, of six rather cryptic sections, which opens and closes with chant-like writing for unaccompanied soprano, while its other movements match voice and instruments most imaginatively - a striking match staccato flute and violin at one point. The vocal line sung with great accuracy and confidence by Lesley-Jane Rogers, but with real affection, as well - has wide intervals but is mostly gentle and unforced. It has a wide compass, too, sometimes matching the high flute, sometimes being pushed to its deepest extreme by the persuasive cello. I'd love to hear Jane Rogers sing Aster in a concert. In fact, I'd be pleased to hear more of this interesting young woman's work.