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Alex Paxton: Happy Music for Orchestra


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Alex Paxton: Happy Music for Orchestra
British composer and improvising-trombonist Alex Paxton seems to have been enjoying the life of a rising star. In the past few years he has managed to release two albums: Music for Bosch People in 2021 on Birmingham Record Company and ilolli-pop in 2022 on Nonclassical. He has won three awards: the Ivor Novello British Composer Awards in 2021, and both the Paul Hindemith Prize and the Ernst von Siemens Composers' Prize in 2023. As if this was not impressive enough, he has received commissions from leading European and British institutions and ensembles, such as Ensemble Modern, Riot Ensemble, London Sinfonietta, Maerzmusik Festival, Gaudeamus Festival and Impulse Festival, amongst others. Many words have been said and written already about his unique and restless approach, which, like a playful child, cannot sit still playing a prank on the listener wherever possible.

Paxton's 2023 album, Happy Music for Orchestra, sets the bar high by challenging the composer to deal with the whole orchestra, and even water percussion. Paxton describes it as "more of an unplugged album. It's almost entirely acoustic sounds, rather than electronic sounds. It's a bit more classical—writing for classical instrumentalists, and orchestral musicians—as opposed to contemporary classical specialists." His style, nonetheless, still shines through with the use of a roaring and bustling brass, restless strings, high-pitched buzz and an omnipresent sense of playfulness and easy-goingness. The opening track "Love Kitten," full of textural vibrancy, starts with a catchy trombone phrase, changing the imagery kaleidoscopically as it progresses. Even without using electronic means, he creates the sense of a crisp hyperpop-infused electronic sound; there is a constant sense of movement, a kind of musical anarchy.

Melody is at the heart of Paxton's compositional approach, a feature harking back to his background as an improvising trombonist. The buzzing trombone solo in "Od Ody Pink'd" underpins the song with a constant presence, resembling a confused bee flying all over the place, while the orchestra creates a sense of grandeur and drama against which this solo is played. At 11:28, "Strawberry" is the longest work on this disc; it is still a persistent barrage of wandering melodies, whistling tones and flatulent noises—a kind of 21-century polyphony—but with a twist. There are now drums, alto saxophone and voice, performed by David Ingamells, Matthew Herd and Parry Terry respectively, which add new timbral qualities to the music, should one get overwhelmed with the persistence of Paxton's texture.

Contrary to what one might expect from the name of Happy Music for Orchestra, there is also a more melancholic side to the album. "Water Music" is more thoughtful, pondering and even mysterious. Paxton's choice of water percussion, played by Beibei Wang, adds the perfect shade of colour to the textural richness of the track, the high frequencies that make his music pop and click. But, perhaps most touching, is Paxton's bittersweet "Bye," with its ever-present melodic riff which simply doesn't let you go, just like you don't let it. It is reminiscent of meeting someone special who you do not want to part ways with.

Listening to all three albums that Paxton has so far produced, it is difficult to say which is his best. Happy Music for Orchestra is more "classical," refined and less rough than his previous two discs; these are definitely his concert pieces. It is nonetheless a great addition to his triptych, allowing the listener to pick what works for them. More importantly, it is a testament to how a talented musician can always adapt to whatever challenges lie ahead. Paxton's lovely and complex layering of sounds, reminiscent of the hectic, anxiety-ridden modern-day lifestyle, should remind us that, even in the midst of unreplied emails, unpaid bills, and a growing sense of loneliness in a more-than-ever interconnected world, it is still possible to find joy and feel alive.

Track Listing

Love Kitten; Od Ody Pink'd; Strawberry; Water Music; Sweet Wishes; Bye.


Alex Paxton: trombone; Beibei Wang: percussion; Patrick Terry: voice / vocals; Matthew Herd: saxophone; David Ingamells: drums.

Album information

Title: Happy Music for Orchestra | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Delphian Records

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