Living in Greg Caffrey’s Environments

Irish composer Greg Caffrey is better known in the UK than in America. Perhaps this release will change that somewhat. It features four orchestral works by Caffrey, all written within the last 12 years. 

I’d call Caffrey’s style “post-tonal.” He uses dissonance effectively, and his melodies seem angular at times. Traditional chord progressions are absent. And yet there’s still a sense of motion — that the music has started at a point and will eventually return to that point.

Aingeal opens the album. It’s the most recent composition (2021), and according to the composer, the most personal. The early death of a close friend inspired the work. Caffrey channels his loss and pain into something ethereal, disturbing, and ultimately comforting. 

Caffrey composed Environments I and Environments II in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Environments I is for solo piano and orchestra. It’s not a concerto, where the soloist is showcased. Rather, it’s a study in contrasts between a single instrument and an ensemble. Caffrey’s unusual orchestrations blur the distinction between soloist and group. Daniel Browell’s performance is both nuanced and engaging.

Environments II seems similar in intent. Here though, the forces are solo guitar, string orchestra, and percussion. The limited palette of the string orchestra throws the guitar into greater relief. Craig Ogdon has made several great recordings of contemporary guitar works. Add this performance to the list. 

 According to Caffrey, A Terrible Beauty was a long time coming. He conceived each of the three movements as a stand-alone work. Caffrey spent eight years composing the parts and then piecing them together. 

The title comes from a poem by WB Yeats. The music isn’t an illustration of Yeats’ poetry. Rather, it’s an emotional reaction to it. Caffery’s orchestration gives the ensemble an unusual blend.  It effectively communicates the unsettled nature of the poems. Yeats’ poetry tells us something’s not quite right — Caffrey’s music confirms it. 

These are powerful orchestral works. The Ulster Orchestra directed by Sinead Hays does a superb job. This music doesn’t sound easy to play. And yet every note sounds authoritative and assured.

This might not be the music for your next dinner party. But if you’re looking for music of substance that can communicate true emotion — well, this might be for you.   

Greg Caffrey: Environments
Craig Ogden, guitar
Daniel Browell, piano
Ulster Orchestra; Sinead Hays
Divine Art

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