Ian Wilson's Stations

Prolific Belfast-born contemporary composer returns to Queen's with ambitious new work

There are few composers working in the UK and Ireland as prolific and varied in their music as Belfast-born Ian Wilson who, for the last 20 years, has amassed an impressive portfolio of work ranging from chamber to orchestral works including commissions from performers and groups the length and breadth of the country. 

This performance at Queen’s University’s Harty Room marks the completion of a project between the composer and British pianist Matthew Schelhorn, who has performed in some of the UK’s most prestigious venues including the Wigmore Hall and the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room.

Wilson’s Stations has been a work in progress for the past few years: completed in separate sections or ‘books’, the pieces have all been performed individually, but tonight marks the premiere of the work in its entirety. The piece takes its inspiration from the stations of the cross - imagery which has inspired many other contemporary composers including Peter Maxwell Davis.

These Stations should provide Wilson with a huge emotional canvas of imagery and religious symbolism to draw on, yet at the outset the composer leaves any expectation toward literality by the wayside.

As Wilson himself explains, he wants to 'expand the potential ‘meaning’ of the work so that imitations of programme music… would not arise…but instead [the piece] creates its own sense of musical drama as it proceeds.'

If indeed the work is to be 'unhindered by dogma or imagery', for an audience this could be seen akin to a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde underscored by Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes - what I mean to say is that imagery and themes such as these surely deserve a greater dramatic musical interpolation to do it justice, rather than a cold silhouette set against it?

Wilson does, however, not completely conform to his own structural and stylistic ambitions for the work, and at several moments there are vividly literal musical ‘hit points’ which surely look to conjure up very specific images - particularly in the Third, Seventh and Ninth stations. All share material you could describe as ‘thematic’, and although not necessarily strong enough to be a motif, there is a definite sense of narrative.

The same can be said of the Eleventh station (Jesus is nailed to the cross) which seems to evoke a strong link to the literal movement of crucifixion through a series of written accented crochets in the bass line, one after the other.

The fact that Wilson does indeed depart from a ‘cold’ and ‘distant’ reading of the stations is something to be commended, but as a listener you are aware of various other themes at work. Isolation, in particular, develops through Wilson’s sparse use of the piano, broken up ‘bare’ and fragmented chords.
The music is stark and simple in its directness, making no allusions or flourishes, but instead seems to meander around the outside and pass comment on the drama, providing only what could be described as a hollow and indistinct reaction to an otherwise rich and engaging story.

As a whole, though, the piece certainly works on many levels, and has been crafted in order for a listener to project their own personal understanding. Indeed, it could be argued that distancing the piece from any literal experience of the stations a listener is almost mentally forced to hyper analyse every nuance of harmony, rhythm and melody to make dramatic sense - this certainly has its advantages, and creates a more personal experience for an audience.

Schelhorn’s performance of the work is assured and definite in its direction, giving life to Wilson’s music with a surprisingly colourful and unifying rendition of all fourteen movements. Thematic pillars become clear and musical continuity is certainly achieved throughout the 65 minute work, bringing all elements together with confidence.

Contemporary music will always be the subject of scrutiny, provoking discussion and debate. Wilson’s work certainly achieves what it sets out to do in forging its own narrative of the fourteen stations, albeit one which is more of a spectator rather than partaking in any emotional relationship with the text.

Graeme Stewart