Russ Callison and Calum Borthwick form Derelict Hands. I had the pleasure of meeting them last summer in Glasgow Scotland to coach their performance and recording of my Duo Sonata #1, its first recording, which forms part of their new album Eyes to the Future. I loved working with these responsive young gentleman and am impressed with the results of their debut album, which came out at the beginning of this year.
As a composer, I think form is the most important element of a piece of music. Fine detail is clearly essential, but the first job of the performer as well as the writer is to convey form, structure, long line and contrast. I live in New England and the form of the seasons imposes itself on an almost daily basis. Our lives here revolve around the demands of the changing climate. And so Eyes to the Future also revolves round and round. 3 + 1 + 3 + 1 +3. The CD begins with three appealing works by Philip Houghton, that essentially form a sonata, using mostly modal elements; continues with the iconic atonal work of Schoenberg Sechs Kleine Klavierstück: the three movement modal Duo Sonata #1 by yours truly; a single atonal work by Akiri Miyoshi; and finally the third modal group, Sonata Fantasia by Dusan Bogdanovich.
The duo’s variety of dynamics and articulation is impressive. They are clearly thinking and feeling in depth, exploring every piece in detail while conveying the grand structure through that very detail. As should be, lyrical elements are lovingly wrought while rhythmic sections are played with hard driving direction. There is strumming aplenty with the accompanying desire to tap one’s foot in all three third movements that brings great excitement to their respective conclusions. The slow Lament by Houghton is full of longing and played with beautiful restraint while the spacious Schoenberg has both humor and a solemn spirituality.
My only suggestions for future efforts are on the technical side and admittedly lean toward personal preference. And so I indulge my passion for reverb and traditional guitars and strings. Slow movements could use more space – not in the ensemble’s timing – but in the sense of more reverberation, more resonance of a simulated hall. I like to say that great guitars are beautiful things, but great halls are vastly more important and underrated. My other complaint is that aggressive movements are occasionally too hard or harsh, but this seems to be primarily the individual style of guitar (and/or choice of string). In both high and low tessituras, the guitars don’t seem to be able to handle the drive and musical ambition of the players.
The obvious must be mentioned, which is to say that Derelict Hands is clearly committed to the future of the guitar. They must be highly praised for their commitment to this goal by making their debut CD all new music. There is much to enjoy here on first listening and there is also the challenge that still remains to give atonal expressions a fair chance. While some of my own compositions have atonal elements, I admit to not being a big fan of purely atonal expression or as educated in the system as I should be. Nevertheless, Derelict Hands makes a convincing case. I go back to my earlier statement on form – that in this context, the two pieces of this nature stand as reflective, spiritual, even natural (“existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”) in their seeming chaos.
Bravo – highly recommended.