Composers Prize 2023
Unbridled joyby Jakob Böttcher
Joy is an attribute that is rarely found in contemporary music, perhaps because it stands in apparent contradiction to academic tradition. The fact that Alex Paxton’s work can be characterised without exaggeration as an expression of unbridled joy points to his special position in the scene and is testimony to his unique creativity: if you were to frolic in any part of his music with a freeze pedal—an effect device particularly popular with electric guitarists for capturing a temporary state of sound—you would still be able to identify it, so characteristic is the colour of sound alone from shrill synthesizers and piercing trombone. On the temporal axis, there is an almost inexhaustible excitement and density running through his work, which makes it difficult to assign this music to any genre at all.
Alex Paxton is a true dual talent of instrumentalist and composer, and certainly both sonic imagination and approach to composing are strongly influenced by his playing. As a trombonist, Paxton shapes an improvised, loud and overdriven-sounding virtuosity adapted from free jazz, at the speed of which the individual notes blur into a human-like gesture. This quality of density and chaos is also found in his notated music, whereby a glance at Paxton’s scores provides insight into the dualism of his working process between improvisation and composition: a precisely notated classical notation testifies not only to an effective practical orientation but also to a rootedness in contemporary academic music, and at most reveals the high degree of liveliness in the acoustic result on closer inspection.
Paxton appears as a composer of a new generation who thinks of the work itself not least from a discography. Thus the two ensemble works iLolli-Pop (2022) and Music for Bosch People (2021) unfold a special quality of richness of detail and immediacy on the recordings edited and mixed by the composer himself. The pieces also manifest Paxton’s typical fast-paced ensemble sound through his particular orchestral signature, in which instrumental colours often complement each other like the mixture stops of an organ to create a shrill soundscape. While the exploration of various qualities of chaotic states proves to be Paxton’s constant driving force, an increased focus on softer sections with dense harmonic constructions and playful motivic processing has become noticeable in recent times. While in Music for Bosch People the mechanical repetition of small motifs is in the foreground, in iLolli-Pop they awaken to a life of their own used as a compositional tool. iLolli-Pop, as an ensemble piece with an improvising soloist, also stands for the exploration of an unusual genre. As an ensemble piece with an improvising soloist, iLolli-Pop also stands for the exploration of an unusual genre in the area of tension between solo concerto and overdub, in which Paxton explores the possibility of equal rights for solo and ensemble parts despite formal differences between notated and improvised parts. The orchestral piece Levels of Affection (2022) continues this experiment with even optional improvised solo. Complementing Paxton’s frequent work for large ensembles are solo explorations that reveal compositional starting points. Londonglum (2021), for example, is a breathless battle between trombone and voice that bears witness to Paxton’s inherent musical drive.
The parallelism of events is a central design device in Paxton’s music, and so one could attest to his use of a kind of globularity of styles. Nevertheless, the colour palette of influences is to be understood personally and is deliberately limited - thus defining the sound: always in the foreground are influences from jazz and a range of retro sounds, especially from the era of early video games. The linking of styles without comment leads to a certain inner-musical absurdity that makes Paxton’s work so stylistically elusive and at the same time so playful and vivid. It is fitting that Paxton, as a former primary school teacher, once described a school class with its immense variety of voices as a “really amazing instrument”. It is precisely this tonal variance that he transmits into his instrumentations, but he also makes explicit use of it in his work with amateurs: the dazzling ensemble piece Candyfolk Space-Drum (2022) involves singing school classes, while the community opera Noggin & the Whale (2017), with its premiere cast of almost 500 children, also demonstrates Paxton’s willingness to go crazy on a formal level. These works point to the 87 origins of the component of the childishly wacky that is omnipresent in Paxton’s music, but which always appears slightly distorted and thus as part of the musical absurdity.
Alex Paxton is in many ways a loud composer with a high creative output. His music challenges in an unconventional way: it is chaotic, crazy, shrill and dazzling, of an idiosyncratic absurdity, but above all uncompromising in its joy.