Review: Richard Moult - Ethe (2010)

artist: Richard Moult
release: Ethe
format: CD
year of release: 2010
label: Dead­slack­string
dur­a­tion: 53:26

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com

In the bar­ren days of the present many of us look around for art that is ser­i­ous without being pre­ten­tious; that is beau­ti­ful without being kitsch; that is chal­len­ging without being ali­en­at­ing; that is autonom­ous without being egot­ist­ical; that is mel­an­choly without being self-indulgent. And we usu­ally look in vain, because such art is no longer wanted in the mod­ern mar­ket place where art itself has become a branch of the enter­tain­ment industry, designed to eli­cit shal­low responses and pro­voke false out­rage. In this cul­tural desert, the seeker after true art will see the work of the Eng­lish com­poser and painter Richard Moult as a wel­come oasis.

Richard’s new album, Ethe, is one musical mani­fest­a­tion of a wider pro­ject that also encom­passes poetry and paint­ing. This new phase rep­res­ents some­thing of a depar­ture from Richard’s earlier work. As a painter his mature work began with a series of land­scapes, mostly of the Welsh Marches. These works con­veyed such a lucid appre­hen­sion of the land­scape that they seemed to be dir­ect expres­sions of the essence of the nat­ural world, rather than mere depic­tions of it. They con­veyed to the viewer some­thing of the secret soul of nature as exper­i­enced and medi­ated by the artist in his rela­tion­ship with his envir­on­ment. In these paint­ings the world of nature was not some external thing that the artist tried to frame, or mas­ter; instead she was an intim­ate ally who was wor­shipped.

Increas­ingly, fig­ures began to appear in the land­scapes: birds; young girls; statues; foxes. And then, as these ele­ments began to form a coher­ent and unique artistic per­spect­ive, there came the appear­ance of some sur­real and idio­syn­cratic devices: fig­ures formed in the clouds; sin­ister chil­dren dressed in out­dated cloth­ing. Through­out all of these explor­a­tions there was a strong sense of style and vis­ion that remained con­sist­ent. Whatever the sub­ject mat­ter, there was always a clar­ity to the exe­cu­tion of the work and an access­ib­il­ity of form that made the paint­ings come alive.

A few years ago this care­fully developed style was put aside and the mys­ter­i­ous Ethe paint­ings began to appear. These pic­tures seemed to sig­nal a com­plete break from what had gone before. Abstract, dark, and form­less, the Ethe paint­ings sug­ges­ted that the artist was retreat­ing com­pletely into a world of interior sym­bol­ism, and that the clar­ity of vis­ion that had applied itself so suc­cess­fully to the world of nature would now be turned inwards. The Ethe paint­ings are dark, cloud­like, with the occa­sional leak­age of light pour­ing through. Where before sun­light had burst through clouds with viol­ence and pas­sion, seed­ing nature with its life giv­ing power, now the light is dim, unclear, muted. In these new paint­ings, the clouds are dark and oppress­ive, the light, fugit­ive and weak. And bey­ond the inter­play of the cold light and the cold dark­ness, there is noth­ing; no hint of land­scape, no ground­ing in any recog­nis­able imagery. What is clear from the Ethe paint­ings is that we are no longer deal­ing with art which attempts to medi­ate the artist’s vis­ion through a shared land­scape; these are raw and primal expres­sions of des­ol­a­tion.

Sim­il­arly, the album, Ethe, rep­res­ents a new musical dir­ec­tion. Many of Richard’s pre­vi­ous com­pos­i­tions had been set­tings of poems in the song tra­di­tion of com­posers such as Schubert, Fauré and Finzi. These songs, many of which were set­tings of Mary Webb poems, were all com­posed with the inten­tion of allow­ing the music to be sub­ser­vi­ent to the poetry. The role of the com­poser was to allow the inher­ent music­al­ity of the poetry to express itself. In this sense, these were very con­ser­vat­ive com­pos­i­tions. They eschewed mod­ern con­ven­tions and refused to be plat­forms for the composer’s own intel­lec­tual ideas, or ego. But des­pite (or per­haps, because of) the con­ven­tional form these songs took, they were small mas­ter­pieces that were cap­able of con­vey­ing great emo­tional feel­ing through their melod­ies. Des­pite the super­fi­cially “old-fashioned” style, these were songs that could com­mu­nic­ate dir­ectly with the listener because the musical vis­ion was expressed with such clear intent and focused elo­quence. Part of this elo­quence con­sisted in the access­ib­il­ity of the melod­ies which provided such a pleas­ing and appro­pri­ate reflec­tion of the poetry’s form. With Ethe, this con­ven­tion of form has dis­ap­peared.

The new phase was pres­aged with the release of the two lim­ited edi­tion CDs, Suite for Tit­ouan and Suite for Hip­polyte. These con­sist of solo piano pieces that are dark, brood­ing and less access­ible than the earlier song com­pos­i­tions. The tone of intense mel­an­choly is sus­tained through­out these suites, and is explored fur­ther and deeper with the music on Ethe. The out­stand­ing moment from these Suites is the con­clud­ing move­ment from Tit­ouan which begins with a sense of tidal ebb and flow and con­cludes with a brood­ing and intro­spect­ive sense of irres­ol­u­tion. A storm is brew­ing, but will it break?

Ethe begins with a five part piece entitled “The Five Daugh­ters”. This opens with a feel not too dis­sim­ilar to Satie’s “Gym­nopédies”, but it soon reveals that its real intent lies, not in the imit­a­tion of earlier forms, and cer­tainly not in the emu­la­tion of an intel­lec­tu­al­ised exper­i­ment­al­ism, but rather in the expres­sion of a deeply felt, intu­it­ive, musical mel­an­choly. Whilst this music is cer­tainly darkly intro­spect­ive and ser­i­ous, it is nowhere unpleas­ant or dis­en­ga­ging. Indeed, when listened to super­fi­cially it can sound like a pleas­ing, if down­beat, impres­sion­ist work, in the vein of Satie or Debussy. But, like a river, the pretty sur­face con­ceals murky depths with dan­ger­ous under­cur­rents.

Much of the music on Ethe lends itself to com­par­is­ons with nat­ural phe­nom­ena: rain; thun­der; rivers. The com­par­ison is import­ant: this music expresses cer­tain sub­ject­ive emo­tions, but this expres­sion is never allowed to become undis­cip­lined and self-indulgent. Instead, the emo­tional power of the music is always com­men­sur­ate to nat­ural phe­nom­ena. Whether this is inten­tional or not, I do not know, but with repeated listen­ing it becomes appar­ent that this music is meas­ured against the slow chan­ging back­drop of nat­ural phe­nom­ena. The sub­ject mat­ter seems to be the interior emo­tional land­scape of the artist him­self, but the artic­u­la­tion of this interior land­scape is cer­tainly rooted in the nat­ural world. This dia­lect­ical con­ver­sa­tion between the interior and the exter­ior pro­duces some mas­ter­pieces of under­stated beauty.

A couple of the pieces on Ethe, “Swaer­mian”, and “The Road to Strata Flor­ida” I and II, util­ise a tech­nique referred to as ‘Lys­er­gic Morph­ing’. As the name implies, this has a slightly hal­lu­cin­at­ory effect, being a mod­u­la­tion of the piano music com­bined with an omin­ous sound­ing over­lay of dron­ing effects. The effect of this is to lib­er­ate the music from the con­fines of its own instru­ment­a­tion and to achieve a tran­scend­ence to a more eth­er­eal sound. This effect, I believe, is one that is inten­ded by all of the music on Ethe. It is a desire to free the music from par­tic­u­lar forms of asso­ci­ation, and ulti­mately from form itself, so that the music will allow cer­tain stilled, con­tem­plat­ive states to be gained.

We are used to hear­ing music that works in rather child­ish ways; that takes us by the hand and attempts to induce in us trite emo­tional states. It often cre­ates a sense of yearn­ing by jux­ta­pos­ing cer­tain notes or chords that cre­ate a cer­tain res­on­ance in the listener. These melodic ref­er­ences are often repeated or echoed through­out a piece of music. This has the effect of mak­ing the listener refer back to earlier parts of the piece, and anti­cip­ate forth­com­ing parts. In this way, we become used to a music that grounds us in a sense of tem­poral pro­gres­sion, and, often, emo­tional shal­low­ness. On Ethe, there is a con­stant sense of yearn­ing, but it is not exper­i­enced as a desire to refer back and forth to dif­fer­ent parts of the music. Instead, there seems to be an inten­tion to cre­ate a sense of yearn­ing born in each moment of listen­ing. The effect of this is to free the listener from the ebb and flow of tem­poral con­cerns, and to induce a state of being that is both calm and alert.

Some­thing of this effect was hin­ted at in some of Richard’s earlier paint­ings. The dip­tych, Reck­on­ing, shows a house seen across an over­grown meadow. Each can­vas depicts the same scene viewed from the same per­spect­ive, but the first can­vas is a day­time scene, the second, noc­turnal. In the second, an owl is fly­ing over the meadow. Other than this, there is little more to be said about what is con­tained in these paint­ings, but the effect of their jux­ta­pos­i­tion is to inspire a sense of won­der at the often secret, hid­den, world of nature, and of the alto­gether dif­fer­ent way in which time unfolds in the absence of a human par­ti­cipant. This dip­tych makes us feel as though we have been per­mit­ted to see this hid­den world of nature without unne­ces­sary con­tex­tu­al­isa­tion. We see the inev­it­able altern­a­tion of night and day and feel a respect for the patient pas­sage of time as it unfolds bey­ond human reck­on­ing.

On Ethe, the music inspires a sim­ilar response. We become immersed in a sad and ser­i­ous frame of mind but we begin to feel that we are dwell­ing con­ten­tedly in the moment rather than run­ning towards some emo­tional peak or trough. We feel a calm­ing sense of repose that is both psy­cho­lo­gical and physiolo­gical, and yet we remain fully attent­ive. The music is full of the trans­form­a­tions of nature, full of the tidal ebb and flow of powers greater than us, and the com­mu­nion with such forces begins to induce in us a med­it­at­ive state of being. This effect, of dwell­ing in the ubi­quity of the present moment, has its par­al­lels in other musical pro­jects. Gurdjieff and De Hart­mann col­lab­or­ated on a series of sac­red pieces for piano in the 1920’s. These works can pro­voke a stilled, med­it­at­ive response in the listener, but they are largely deriv­at­ive of the folk tra­di­tions that inspired them. Ethe seeks to achieve a rather more dir­ect, unme­di­ated, path­way to the tran­scend­ent.

The album feels as though it has no real sense of res­ol­u­tion. Such an impos­i­tion of form would con­tra­dict its intent. Instead, there is a calm unfold­ing that fin­ishes with the artist recit­ing one of his Ethe poems. The voice has been mod­u­lated in a sim­ilar way to the Lys­er­gic­ally Morphed pieces, so that the words are lost in the tim­bre of the voice. As a musical inter­pret­a­tion of a poem, it is some­what dif­fer­ent from the earlier Schuber­tian set­tings, but in its own way, it belongs to that tra­di­tion, as it is neither arbit­rary nor form­less. Through its tran­scend­ent Eth­er­isa­tion it becomes an eerie evoc­a­tion of some­thing mys­ter­i­ous, and bey­ond form. It is a fit­ting end to this impress­ive piece of work.

Guest review by Chris Pankhurst


1. The Five Daugh­ters I (3:54)
2. The Five Daugh­ters II (2:09)
3. The Five Daugh­ters III (5:45)
4. The Five Daugh­ters IV (1:51)
5. The Five Daugh­ters V (6:47)
6. Swaer­mian (7:52)
7. Star Filled Tree, Blacks­burg (4:11)
8. The Road To Strata Flor­ida I (4:14)
9. The Road To Strata Flor­ida II ( 16:43)