The title of this album, Rooted Time, comes from a work on the program by English composer George Arthur, although just as appropriate would be Shared Time, since Arthur’s music alternates with pieces by the Portsmouth-born Welsh composer Clive Osgood. The booklet offers no information about the two composers’ connection, but at the very least they are linked by writing choral music, for which each is best known. Writing for piano represents an excursion into a very different genre, but not entirely. Traditional English choral music, particularly religious choral music, is generally conservative, often inward-gazing, and doggedly sincere. Those qualities pervade Arthur and Osgood’s music to such a degree that I had a hard time distinguishing between their styles. Sometimes genre has a way of crowding out personality.
Yet in its themes and circumstances the music is very personal. In the notes to his part of the program, Arthur tells us that his two works, Rooted Time and Mardi Gras, were written during the pandemic lockdown of 2021 and 2022. Many artists experienced enforced isolation and solitude then, which brought attendant stresses, and if they were lucky, some benefits. Arthur already has an isolated existence, since he lives in the New Forest, which despite its name was proclaimed a royal forest by William the Conqueror. It contains large tracts of unenclosed pastures, a rarity, along with deep forest and wild ponies. Arthur’s closest neighbor lives a mile away.
Arthur calls Rooted Time “situational,” because it bears on his immediate surroundings, and quite specifically to five trees that he knows well, beginning with the Knightwood Oak, the so-called “Queen of the Forest,” and ending with a “fairly un-extraordinary tree that acted as a signal post during long walks with our dog in 2020–21.” One might expect the music to be redolent of old England and musical nostalgia, but Rooted Time is surprisingly contemporary, beginning with the obscurantist titles for each movement. These were taken from a unique geographical guide, What3words, that encodes the exact position, within three meters, of any place by using three coded words. For example, the Knightwood Oak’s piece is titled “///adventure.reclined.diary” and the unextraordinary tree at the end gets a movement titled “///torn,cities.thinks.” (The coding process is copyrighted, but amid seemingly meaningless compounds, some wit might be involved. No. 10 Downing Street is ///slurs this shark.)
Arthur’s method, aside from the impenetrable titles, was to characterize each tree through notated improvisations. For example, respecting the Knightwood Oak, the music “seeks to capture the massive structure of the oak tree, its former glories as a Victorian tourist attraction, and its frailty in old age.” I’d love to report that Arthur’s music resonates with his good intentions, but for me, he employs musical means that are too basic to hold my attention. Common chords, conventional harmony, chorale-like melodies, and sonorous tones in the left hand lose interest quickly, and for all the elaborate verbal apparatus around Rooted Time, the results are too aimless, thanks to the rudimentary nature of the improvisations.
Lockdown impelled Arthur’s imagination away from his local surroundings in the opposite direction, toward riotous experiences at Carnival time. Being lively and suffused with a Minimalist beat and samba rhythms, Mardi Gras held some appeal for me. It was written for the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble and performed by them here. In the rest of the program the two pianists, Natalie Tsaldarakis and Panayotis Archontides alternate as soloists.
Osgood’s keyboard music rises toe the same skillful level as Arthur’s, and similarly there is reference to the pandemic lockdown in Songs of Solitude. Its three lyrical sections evoke aspects of solitude, such as repetitiveness, intimacy, and passing time, the qualities Osgood names for the first section, or song. I might as well reveal that Osgood’s personal resonance with solitude didn’t come across memorably. His materials are so conventional as to be retrograde and generic. I anticipated a flourish if imagination in Seven Scenes from “Alice in Wonderland,” hoping that Osgood could find clever, enticing ways to depict Carroll’s immortal creations.
We do go down the rabbit hole, attend a “Mad Tea Party,” and recall the irascible Queen of Hearts crying “Off with their heads!” Osgood weaves an Alice motif throughout the seven episodes, supplies some delicate dancing and nice melodies, and calls upon his background as a professional organist for Bach-lite counterpoint. The whole suite is attractive in a mild-mannered way, but the pungent characters that disconcert Alice need something less like weak tea.
I don’t detect gripping musical imaginations at work here. My mild appreciation of both composers isn’t an absolute by any means, and a very conservative listener, particularly one steeped in the English church and organ tradition, is likely to find pleasure here. The problem with rooted time is that it can seem like stuck time. The performances are middling in quality, as is Convivium’s recorded sound.