Reviews
Partita for solo piano:
From The Sunday Times
‘…the ones I liked best had been movements from Paul Usher’s Partita – keenly heard clockwork miniatures recalling player-piano studies by Conlon Nancarrow -…’

String Quartet No.1:
From Süddeutsche Zeitung

“Rather original” was the verdict of Irvine Arditti…, on first encountering Paul Usher’s music at the 1999 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Arditti was clearly impressed by the largely unknown Englishman’s string quartet, on the grounds that “you normally find young composers copying some other styles. Paul Usher’s music, however, sounded original. He was using a rather complex rhythmical notation for a score that was striving to attain the highest possible degree of compression.”

From The Independent

‘…But we at least heard a few very good pieces: the final movement of Paul Usher’s First String Quartet, for instance, offering rich complexity with a luscious lilt.’
From Donaukurier [“Ein Konzertprogramm mit lauter Fugen”]

The third piece on the programme was the world premiere of a string quartet by Paul Usher, born in London in 1971. The four-movement quartet, commissioned by the Audi cultural fund, made use of structures that were almost exclusively canonic and polyphonic, creating a highly complex impression and displaying a hectic, nervously flickering style of expression that incorporated brief, cliché-like motifs, fragments of sound, glissandi, and quarter-tone effects.
Particularly the swaying dance style of the second movement gave a convincing demonstration of how Usher was able to shape his exciting city music – in its fragmentation and displacements – into an enthralling whole, rich with associations. While the final movement, which seemed to act as a synopsis of what went before, did indeed function as a summing up of the quartet, it was actually also the nucleus of the piece – a work that was therefore composed in reverse, as it were.


A Crypt for Christina:

From Südkurier [“Klage, Protest, keine Lobby”]

In the closing concert of the festival three composers were in the spotlight, all of them born between 1967 and 1976. None of them could be said to be established names. Or wealthy. Or powerful. The best known, perhaps, was London-based Rebecca Saunders, who presented an orchestral piece (“Miniata”) that was very interesting, subtle, but also a little monotonous at almost 40 minutes long. Daniel Smutny, from Mannheim, was the youngster of the festival; his “Xade” for orchestra left a colossal impression in its wake, by incorporating a monumental interplay between material from the past and an attempt to escape from it. Paul Usher’s “A Crypt for Christina”, too, made a very strong impression with its almost romantic dreamlike quality. Usher draws very strongly on Bruckner, something that can be heard in the music’s almost religious earnestness.

From Donau Zeitung
Things then closed in delicate and serious style in the final concert – impeccably conducted by Hans Zender. Rebecca Saunders’ “miniata” moved delicately between lightly flickering accordion sounds and explosive attacks from the full orchestra. Paul Usher’s “A Crypt for Christina”, a neo-romantically sparkling band of sound, dared to play with fragmented quotations from works by Schubert and Bruckner.

From Schwäbische Zeitung

Platform for the new generation
In the Sunday evening closing concert, too, the SWR orchestra was on top form, displaying an instinctive surefootedness in the performance of contemporary music. This represented a magnificent platform for three young composers, none of them much older than 30, to take their first important steps on the concert stage. Two of them took the opportunity to wander with youthful insouciance through musical history as they paid homage to their heroes, Bruckner, Schubert and Mahler. All three, however, deployed changes in sound as their major stylistic resource. The Englishman Paul Usher set short motifs within a largely static sound world…

From Az:
A more compelling and refined impression was given by Michel van der Aa’s “Second Self”, Wolfgang Suppan’s “Phase” …and finally Paul Usher’s “A Crypt for Christina”, whose concealed quotations yearn nostalgically for a world of unquestioned beauty.

From Mannheimer Morgen
“Distant closeness” [the theme of the festival] could also refer to the way that – in Paul Usher’s “A Crypt for Christina”, for example – defamiliarised, concealed fragments of Bruckner, Schubert or Mahler seep into the present. And it could also stand for a concept of space in which sounds that seem to arrive from afar blend with those of the hall itself.

From [No reference]
String harmonics, above which the ethereal sounds of the woodwind grab the audience’s attention, introduced the three movements of Paul Usher’s A Crypt for Christina. Less fragmentary, this composer’s style seemed, perhaps, to echo patterns of breathing and to be largely contemplative in mood. With its incomplete scales, its use of micro-tones, its reshaping of recurrent motifs and its subtly detailed textures, Usher’s music – which benefited from an extremely refined and attentive performance – was seductive in its knowing use of colour. Its theme was certainly harder to pin down than that of the piece played immediately before: the mysteries and complexities of its intellectual exercises, reflected in the interplay of timbres, were sympathetically scored…

From [No reference]
In his piece “A Crypt for Christina”, the young London-based Paul Usher, whose music was being heard for the first time at Donaueschingen, is playing with memories, with the romantic tradition of unfinished pieces. For them and his sister Christina he has built a kind of musical mausoleum …

Nancarrow Concerto:
From Frankfurter Rundschau: Kultur Rheinmain (“Für Mickey Mouse”)

Cheerful turbulence
There was less evidence of a drive to transform the material in Paul Usher’s Nancarrow Concerto for Pianola and Orchestra. This piece was given a further Nancarrow touch by the presence of Rex Lawson as a soloist, who with magical fingers loaded the rolls into the pianola and guided their astonishing progress through the instrument by pedal, rather as a cyclist might. There was refinement in the way that the prepared piano impulses – the pianola being positioned almost as an extension of a Steinway grand – corresponded with other piano sounds and with the colour of the orchestra. The cheerful turbulence combined the genius of Nancarrow with that of Mickey Mouse. The Ensemble Modern had already contributed in spectacular style to an extensive theoretical consideration of the topics of speed and Nancarrow in a Frankfurt symposium the previous day.

From Offenbach Post
In his “Nancarrow Concerto”, Paul Usher (born 1970) makes very direct reference to the composer who counts as one of the masters of 20th century music. Rushing runs of notes are heard from the pianola, operated by Nancarrow’s confidant Rex Lawson – only the notes are marked on the piano roles, with the dynamics being controlled manually. To create this piece, Usher had referred to sketches of a pianola concerto made by Nancarrow in 1997[sic], the year of that composer’s death. His theme here was the dichotomy between man and machine...

From Wiesbadener Kurier
In his composition, the “Nancarrow Concerto for Pianola and Orchestra”, Paul Usher considered Nancarrow’s compositional technique as if through a magnifying glass. He allowed the speed to implode into units of matter, whose unpredictable dispersal across time was anything but banal in its effect.

From [No reference]

It was the pianola, above all else, that made an impression with its sound – a mechanical piano that the American Conlon Nancarrow had discovered for himself during the last century, as flesh and blood musicians were simply too slow for his high-speed compositions. The young British composer Paul Usher, in his “Nancarrow Concerto”, had interwoven the pianola with the orchestral sound of the Ensemble Modern, who played – even though they were merely flesh and blood musicians – with almost athletic virtuosity.

Nancarrow arr. Usher Study for Pianola #33:

From Musicweb

After the wild applause had subsided somewhat, Irvine Arditti dryly acknowledged that the group has a reputation for playing the unplayable, and added, “now here is a piece that actually is unplayable”, and then offered a sensational encore, Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 33, arranged for string quartet by British composer Paul Usher. This dazzling adaptation might be somewhat more playable by human beings than the original study from which it is derived, but I wouldn’t advise your average person actually trying it. (Bruce Hodges, review of Arditti Quartet concert, Zankel Hall, New York City, December 4th 2004)

From Gramophone
Not content to reproduce the comparatively benign rhythmic transformations of the early studies, the Ardittis set out to tackle head-on some of Nancarrow’s most ferociously difficult works. The notorious Study No.33 (fittingly described by Kyle Gann as a ‘monster’) is executed with mind-boggling precision and control...