James Wood's Oreion is the impressive outcome of recent developments in the work of a contemporary composer/performer. Laid out in four sections plus coda, it is scored for orchestra with quadruple brass and woodwind, and gives a substantial role to two soprano saxophones, two keyboards and six percussionists. The pitch organisation of the piece is based on the scale extension of a primary five-note pattern (constructed on the intervals of a semitone and a major third + quartertone), and its transpositions. This gives Oreion its melodic and harmonic character. The resulting microtones are a strongly expressive feature within the work, although their realisation has been adjusted to suit practical orchestral circumstances.
The rhythmic element is fundamental to Oreion. Wood's own language reflects his interest in rhythmic principles from Ancient Greece, together with the musics of India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. All these, he feels, offer significant contributions to revitalising the rhythmic domain. Oreion's own rhythmic texture is made up of eight individual rhythmic layers. These are individually established before participating in the complex interplay through which the work unfolds, moving to the climactic point of convergence in the fourth section.
Oreion's subtitle, 'of mountains', usefully indicates something of its presentation of continuously evolving musical perspectives. Though far from programmatic, the music's rich sound palette and contrasts of gesture still convey something of that sense of physical drama that mountain ranges possess. Uncompromising ruggedness, as in the third section (a melodic figure punctuated by harshly-scored, off-beat chords), has its opposite in deeply expressive moments. One particularly striking passage counterpoints bass flute and viola; another, in the magical closing moments, uses a piano and celeste figure to dissolve in the foreground, leaving a curtain of string harmonics suspended in the air.
This BBC commission has resulted in a work of considerable stature. Yet Oreion's substantial achievement lies not only in the forging of its language, but also in the quality and directness of its speech.
David Wright, The Listener, August 1989