Veronique Vaka – Lendh (World Première)

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To bring this year’s Lent Series to a close, i’m returning to a work i first heard a few months ago, during Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival. One of the most memorable works from that week in Reykjavík was Lendh, by Canadian composer and cellist Veronique Vaka. In her programme note, Vaka talks about the work’s inspirational roots in nature, specifically to a geothermal area in south-west Iceland called Krýsuvík. Lendh can therefore be thought of as something like a ‘subjective translation’ of that region into sound. Although Vaka isn’t originally from Iceland (though she is based there), her piece is very much part of a prevailing orchestral tendency in Iceland (also prominent in the music of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir) toward impressionism, in which the qualities and forces of nature are not so much depicted as become metaphors for abstract musical impressions.

Fundamental to the way Vaka uses the orchestra in Lendh is the creation of a large, multifaceted but cohesive unit that sounds just as much rooted in biology as geology. There’s a sense of groups of instruments acting as component parts of a larger organic entity – one might almost call them muscles or tendons – that together act to make the music move and flex. The key thing about this is that the orchestra is working as one, where individual actions are of lesser importance (in terms of being perceived) than the larger formations of which they form a crucial part. Read more

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Proms 2019: looking forward

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The programme for this year’s Proms season has been unveiled today. Looking at it from a contemporary music perspective, last year’s season has been revealed (as expected) to have been a one-off of surprising generosity. In 2018 we ended up with no fewer than 39 premières, whereas the usual figure is somewhere around half that. For 2019, contemporary music has been scaled back again, with a total of 30 world, European or UK premières.

The world premières dominate: there are 17 of them, from Zosha Di Castri (whose new work Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory gets the season up and running on the opening night), Hans Zimmer (yes, i know), Alexia Sloane, Outi Tarkiainen, Huw Watkins, Errollyn Wallen, Joanna Lee, Jonathan Dove, Dieter Ammann, Alissa Firsova, Ryan Wigglesworth, Dobrinka Tabakova, Linda Catlin Smith, Freya Waley-Cohen, Jonny Greenwood and, kicking off the last night knees-up, Daniel Kidane. There’s also a quartet of new works inspired by movements from J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suites by Stuart MacRae, Nico Muhly, Ailie Robertson and Stevie Wishart, and a joint world première birthday present for conductor Martyn Brabbins, put together by a veritable cluster of the great and the mainstream that will no doubt be the absolute epitome of a curate’s egg. The European and UK premières are by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Peter Eötvös, Benjamin Beckman, Detlev Glanert, John Luther Adams and Louis Andriessen. Overall, it’s hardly the most scintillatingly imaginative choice of composers, but then, it’s the Proms. The gender balance is starting to approach parity, so that’s at least something to celebrate.

Of the rest of the season, highlights include the chance to hear the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble together with the BBC Concerto Orchestra (Prom 11, 26 July), Messiaen‘s epic Des canyons aux étoiles… with pianist Nicolas Hodges (Prom 13, 28 July), James MacMillan‘s Proms favourite The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (Prom 19, 2 August), Takemitsu‘s exquisite Twill by Twilight (Prom 28, 8 August), Sofia Gubaidulina‘s Fairytale Poem (Prom 42, 18 August), Simon Rattle conducting the LSO in Varèse‘s Amériques (Prom 44, 20 August), Hugh Wood‘s Scenes from Comus (Prom 53, 29 August), and the inaugural concert of the all-new Knussen Chamber Orchestra (Proms at Cadogan Hall 8, 9 September).

The season begins in just over three months’ time, on 19 July; full details about all the concerts are available on the BBC Proms website and tickets go on sale on 11 May. Below is a summary of the premières: ** = world, † = European and * = UK. Read more

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Marc Sabat – The Luminiferous Aether (World Première)

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What happens in a composition, both in terms of moment-by-moment activity as well as long-term direction, can sound highly organised and micro-managed or spontaneous and accidental (not necessarily reflecting the way in which they were composed, of course). More interesting is when a piece blurs that distinction and sounds like a complex mixture of the two, as is the case in Canadian composer Marc Sabat‘s 2018 orchestral work The Luminiferous Aether. The work’s title comes from the mysterious material once postulated to exist throughout the universe, comprised of a substance that would act as the medium for carrying light (luminiferous) while, miraculously, having no effect at all on any of the bodies moving through space. The aether was disproven conclusively in the late 1880s and subsequently consigned to history with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Yet the historical conception of the aether – of something manifesting everywhere yet being neither understandable, explainable nor detectable – is one of the driving forces behind Sabat’s piece.

As i’ve already indicated, there’s a clear sense pervading The Luminiferous Aether that order and chance are equally likely to be the cause of what happens in the music. It’s not difficult to hear the work as akin to a journey through space, randomly encountering varying quantities of density and void, disarray and alignment. As such, it brings to mind Poul Anderson’s 1970 hard sci-fi novel Tau Zero, where a damaged spacecraft – stuck in the unfortunate position of being in an unstoppable state of permanent acceleration – passes through huge intergalactic distances in relatively short periods of time, arbitrarily encountering regions of emptiness, matter, pattern and noise. Quite apart from its resemblance to what happens in The Luminiferous Aether, what i also like about that analogy – though i’m not for one moment implying the music has any connection at all to the novel – is that it introduces a cosmological aspect that might not suggest itself when listening to the piece, that of vast distances and speed manifesting in apparently slow rates of movement and change. It’s a valuable paradox to hold in mind. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 9

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Though it lasts only 23 minutes, is cast in a single movement and was described by its composer as being “very modest”, Peter Maxwell DaviesSymphony No. 9 is a seriously substantial, thought-provoking work. Composed in 2012, those of a more republican persuasion might be put off by it being dedicated to “Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee”, but the symphony is about as far from being strewn with bunting as it’s possible to get. It seems to me that the work is, in fact, focused on Britain, and in a way that will always offer food for thought, but which at the present time in particular, with the lamentable, seemingly never-ending wranglings over Brexit potentially reaching their denouement in the coming days, provides a whole lot more to contemplate and consider.

The symphony portrays an entity, a body, represented by the orchestra, that is essentially at war with itself. Max presents this civil war – made to sound deliberately militaristic from the outset – in the first part of the work (though nominally in a single movement, it is structured in two large, connected parts), and while it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the cause of the conflict stems from the brass, the reality is more subtle: they just happen to be the loudest and most demonstrative group. In truth, pretty much every section of the orchestra is a distinct faction making no meaningful attempt to integrate with or accommodate the others. At best, there’s a certain amount of ‘listening’ going on, though increasingly the wind, strings and brass all tend to talk over each other, trying to shout each other down and occasionally hurling abstract insults. Read more

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Judit Varga – …alles Fleisch… (UK Première)

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All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls…

Words from the biblical book of 1 Peter, set to music in Brahms’ German Requiem and thereby alluded to in the title of Hungarian composer Judit Varga‘s orchestral work …alles Fleisch…. Composed in 2013, the piece commemorates flautist Zoltán Gyöngyössy, who died two years earlier. In her programme note (see below), Varga describes the piece as a requiem, though the soundworld is quite far removed from the kind of connotations that that word might immediately suggest. Certainly, considering the meaning of the word ‘requiem’, there’s very little rest in the piece. Or, rather, what traces of rest there are are militated against by a continual strain of tense, fidgety restlessness. Sometimes these two elements seem superimposed, as if they were parallel but disconnected from each other, while elsewhere they seem to be permeating each other in a complex, discomfiting amalgam of mood. Read more

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Arne Gieshoff – Burr (World Première)

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“You put structures in place, and then they kind of surprise you.” Words said by German composer Arne Gieshoff prior to the first performance of his orchestral work Burr. This seems entirely appropriate, since the piece takes its name and inspiration from burr puzzles, in which pieces of wood are arranged to form complex interlocking geometric shapes. In his piece, Gieshoff has sought less to suggest the geometry than the complexity, and perhaps also more than a little of the frustration that can arise when attempting to solve these puzzles. As such, the work’s six-minute duration veers unpredictably back-and-forth between episodes of energy and enervation.

The result of these wild oscillations is that each successive episode tends to sound more extreme than its siblings. So the more energetic passages, which begin the piece, progress from sounding muscular and flamboyant – an exercise in blatant showing-off – to a more desperate and confused kind of activity. The trumpets in particular, wonderfully busy in these sections, increasingly take on the quality of a bunch of mad birds chattering randomly away at each other all at once, while the percussion seem obsessed with filling their bars with ever more crashes and splashes. Another way of putting it, and it’s perhaps an odd word to use, is that there’s something dutiful about these episodes: gradually less about a simple display of energy than the compulsive need to appear to be energetic. It’s a subtle and fascinating shift. Read more

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Mixtape #54 : Menagerie

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For the new 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned to the world of animals, assembling music that references a diverse collection of wildlife. All manner of beasts are featured, insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians in addition to mammals, from the smallest (probably, in this selection, a wasp) to the greatest (definitely, in this selection, a whale), and i’ve not entirely limited myself to reality, including a couple of pieces that pertain to non-existent creatures. The musical choices are similarly aesthetically eclectic, and on this occasion i’ve not sought to make strong stylistic connections throughout the mix but instead emphasise uniqueness: for the most part, none of the 38 tracks closely resembles any of the others.

In all, two hours of sonic zoology providing a veritable musical menagerie, ending with a small tribute to one of music’s great musical minds and voices, who sadly is no longer with us. Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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