Matthew Whiteside - Dichroic Light

Melding chamber aesthetics with electronic minimalism, the Lisburn-born composer's debut strikes a rewarding balance of abstract subtlety and melodic power

Dichroic comes from the Greek and in simplistic terms means exhibiting two colours. It’s a good adjective to describe Lisburn-born Matthew Whiteside’s duality as an electronics musician and composer. It also serves as a metaphor for the twin threads of electro-acoustic and modern string music that bleed into each other on this absorbing sonic adventure.

In essence, Whiteside’s music weds chamber aesthetics with a contemporary disregard for convention. And whilst the duets for electronics and viola, cello and bass clarinet may at first sound like avant garde experimentalism, a clear sense of narrative form runs through all the pieces.

That’s also true for the three pieces interpreted by chamber trio or quartet - and sans electronics - where the lines between composed and improvised are deliciously blurred. 

On ‘Ulation’ - a duet with violist Emma Lloyd—Whiteside’s electronic touches amount to fleeting wheezes, or spattering punctuation like fat rain drops foretelling a shower than never materializes. Lloyd’s viola, in contrast, toggles between bending arco sustain, pizzicato precision and screeching cadenzas.

A berimbau-like cameo could stem from either strings or knobs, but authorship of the soaring cry that seals the composition comes unambiguously from Lloyd’s viola.

The juxtaposition of bass profondo and the violin’s upper ranges underpins 'Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass', performed by the Robinson Panoramic Quartet. On this atmospheric piece, long notes contrast with shorter phrases while steady rhythmic contours and overlapping motifs combine in the unfolding drama.

The spare architecture of ‘Solo for Viola D’Amore and Electronics’ - an extended piece featuring Lloyd - enables even bolder statements, as the contrasts between the violist’s shifting dynamics and the pockets of silence in between are magnified. The electronics on this track are almost imperceptible.

Whiteside joins with cellist Abby Hayward on the title track, an episodic three-part suite that carries notable emotional weight. Hayward’s fog-horn gravitas strikes the gut on the intro to part one, a foreboding tale of undulating tension.

Sci-fi abstraction colours part two, where an electronic pulse underpins Hayward’s ghostly voicing. The conclusion, soaring and plunging, is as dramatic as it is unexpected.

The fusion of viola and electronics is more pronounced during the brooding third part, which sounds like two voices in unison.

A cinematic quality infuses much of the music; such is the case with ‘Well, Well, Well’, where sharply defined rhythmic and melodic lines are executed on bass, alto flute and viola by the chamber ensemble Red Note.

Recently seen in Belfast at The MAC as part of Brian Irvine/Jennifer Walshe’s stunning 13 Vices production, Red Note - this time featuring violin, cello and piano – plot a methodical course laden with tension on ‘The World in an Oyster, An Oyster in the World.’

Whiteside and Joanna Nicholson interpret the three-part suite ‘Three Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Electronics’, which the duo premiered in Northern Ireland at Lisburn’s R-Space last November.

Floating ambient atmospherics give way to call-and-response on part one, while the second segment is characterized by an ethereal lyricism punctuated by explosive clarinet growls. The third part blends linear melody – the most expansive of the recording – and electronic drone, providing an arresting conclusion.

‘Quartet No. 3’ weds the twin violins, viola and cello of the Aurea Quartet with Whiteside’s feathery electronics. Together they stir an ominous sonic brew. High-pitched swirling notes eventually cede ground to urgent sawing rhythms, with a sole voice rises mournfully above the heady maelstrom. The energy gradually dissipates, and the swirling voices swell once more.

Abstract and melodic, serene and rhythmically churning in turn, subtle and yet powerful; Whiteside walks a line between nuanced minimalism and complex chamber charts, resulting in musical soundscapes that are challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

Matthew Whiteside's audio-visual installation Two World's Collide with Dominika Mayovich opens at R-Space Gallery, Lisburn on Saturday, June 13 and runs until July 11. For more arts exhibitions and cultural events taking place across Northern Ireland visit our What's On section.