The Isolation Mixtapes : A

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Due to the ongoing battle against COVID-19, many of us throughout the world are currently experiencing various states of lockdown and isolation. That’s not a situation that looks like it’s going to change significantly for the foreseeable future, so today i’m beginning a new weekly series of mixtapes on 5:4The Isolation Mixtapes. i very much hope that these regular doses of fabulous, fascinating music will go some way to relieve the monotony and make our time isolated from friends and loved ones a little more bearable. Just as importantly, they’ll provide plenty of ideas for music worth buying – and thereby help to support the industry a bit.

The Isolation Mixtapes will be a separate strand from my usual quarterly mixtapes (which i’ll be pausing during this period), and while they won’t have a specific theme, i have given myself some simple rules in order to be able to compile them relatively quickly. i’m making these mixtapes an opportunity to look back over the last decade, so everything will have been released during the years 2010 to 2019. In tandem with this, i’ll be working my way through the alphabet, one letter at a time, so this first mixtape in the series features composers, artists and groups that all begin with the letter A. Two tracks from each year are allowed, making for a total of 20 in each mixtape, and the tracks should be no longer than 7 minutes’ duration. None of the tracks will have been included in any of my previous mixtapes, and in general, i’m going to be favouring music by artists whom i haven’t featured before. So those are the rules, and i hope they’ll make for an interesting, eclectic whistle-stop tour through some of the very best things i’ve listened to during the last ten years.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music – and now, more than ever, if you like what you hear, do please buy the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Collin Thomas – April Triptych

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The penultimate work i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series is both the longest and, possibly (depending on your perspective), the simplest. Collin ThomasApril Triptych was released nine years ago on the long-defunct, Berlin-based netlabel Resting Bell. There are a number of reasons why the piece is interesting, but it’s gained a new quality most recently as society has entered its current, ongoing climate of lockdown and isolation. The piece is rooted in field recordings, and at a time when it’s not possible to roam and explore the landscape as we might wish to, field recordings are a precious reminder of the massive and miniature multifaceted natural wonders out there that, for the time being, have become out of bounds.

The field recording in April Triptych is a neutral one, inasmuch as it doesn’t sound obviously manipulated or edited (actually, it comprises three recordings made in the morning, afternoon and evening), and is less about presenting specific sound objects than providing a broad ‘open’ atmosphere for the piece to inhabit. We hear generalised ambiance, leaves and trees rustling, birds calling and singing, the gentle hubbub of traffic, the purring of a nearby engine, all of which forms a passive sonic backdrop. Two additional layers are added to this. The first begins a little under two minutes in: slow-moving harmonies articulated by soft-edged sine tones, their timbre akin to an organ. According to Thomas’ notes on the piece, these drawn out chords are “an extremely elongated renaissance madrigal”, but they are sufficiently extended that they instead take on a nebulous kind of connectivity: sometimes the chords seem to be drones, inviting no sense of a harmonic past or future of which they form a part; yet at other times such a sense is distantly projected, though rarely to the extent that we would exactly think of them as “chord progressions” (there is, if you deliberately listen for it, a cadential finality at the very end). The second additional layer, which first appears around 12 minutes in, is its behavioural polar opposite: brief, sporadic piano gestures, sprinklings of notes like small splashes on the surface of a millpond, their droplets and ripples instantly gone.

i mentioned nebulous connectivity, and the same can be said of the way these three layers interact with each other. Or don’t interact with each other at all. Do the field recording and piano connect strongest because they’re less overtly ‘active’? Do the field recording and the slow chords connect strongest because they’re part of an ongoing sonic entity? Or do none of them connect, and we instead focus on one layer in particular at any one point? Certainly, though i describe them as layers there’s no obvious hierarchy among them, acting as three discrete elements each of which sounds equally prominent and significant (or insignificant). Furthermore, as i’ve indicated these elements of April Triptych have a neutrality in and of themselves, and whether or not that neutrality extends to their superimposition depends entirely on the ear of the beholder. It’s one of the reasons why the work’s length – just over two hours’ duration – is justified; it allows us to become familiarised with each layer and then consider how they might or might not be behaving or impinging on each other. This impacts very directly on our perception of the passage of time. Personally speaking, there are occasions when the piece has proven frustrating, seemed arbitrary, at which point time slows to a treacly crawl; more often, though, it takes on a transparency, and it’s as if i were listening ‘through’ it in a more relaxed headspace where the relevance, even the entire existence or otherwise, of these hypothetical interactions is rendered moot, and i accept the simultaneous presence of the three elements as if they were all part of the same naturally-occurring phenomenon.

This back-and-forth in terms of engagement says something about me personally, of course, about my mood when listening, my level of concentration, my focus (or lack of it) and so on. But equally it’s an intrinsic part of the way April Triptych operates, tapping into both a sensibility and a behavioural paradigm that are unequivocally ambient. It invites us to take interest and to ignore in equal measure; to appreciate it in moment-by-moment details that can seem random and unplanned, and as a longer-term combination of strategy and serendipity. The piece sets up and maintains an equilibrium of simultaneous tension and relaxation that i appreciate every time i come to it. And at present, when life feels so very strange and unsettling, i appreciate it even more than usual.

April Triptych is available as a free digital download from the Resting Bell website.

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Krzysztof Penderecki (1933–2020)

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i feel terribly sad to have just read the news on the Schott website that Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has died today. Composers impact on our lives in unique and unpredictable ways, and for me, Penderecki’s music has been an omnipresence. When i was still at school, just at the point where i realised composition was the path opening up in front of me, it was with a collection of recordings and scores by Penderecki that i spent a lot of time (in hindsight, my school was absurdly blessed in terms of contemporary music). As a result, several of my earliest compositional experiments were inspired by the likes of De natura sonoris 1 and 2, Fluorescences, the first Symphony, the St Luke Passion and, of course, the Threnody. Fast forward to a few years ago while working on my PhD when, in order to elaborate on the nature and mechanics of some of my compositional techniques, there again was Penderecki, those same works (and others) now sublimated into a fundamental part of my musical language.

His music in more recent years didn’t connect with me as much as his earlier work, i have to confess – though even as i write that, i’m conscious that i’ve rather taken my eye off his output during the last decade, so it’s probably high time to explore those last compositions of his. But i will always be immeasurably grateful and thankful for the ways in which his music impacted on me at such a critical time, and continue to illuminate and invigorate me today. The way he was able to invent such radical, abstract modes of expression – much of it still sounding remarkably vital and fresh – and infuse them so effortlessly with enormous personal depth and feeling was unique and incredible. Contemporary music has lost one of its greatest and most fearless composers.

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Harrison Birtwistle – Semper Dowland, semper dolens (World Première)

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Last autumn, when i began thinking about this Lent Series, one of the first works i intended to include was by Harrison Birtwistle, his opera The Last Supper. However, in light of the events that have transpired in the last couple of months, and which now overshadow everything, i’m instead going to explore a different work of Birtwistle’s that i found myself drawn to again on Tuesday morning, in the wake of the previous evening’s announcement of the more stringent living conditions in the UK. Subtitled ‘theatre of melancholy’, Semper Dowland, semper dolens is a 45-minute work for voice and small ensemble that, as its name makes clear, draws heavily on the music of Renaissance composer John Dowland. Dowland himself wrote a piece bearing that title (which translates as “always Dowland, always doleful”) that was published in a 1604 collection Lachrimæ or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans. Birtwistle’s work dates back a little over a decade, and is structured as an extended sequence alternating instrumental episodes and songs. The episodes are based on and named after the septet of pavans featured in the 1604 collection:

  1. Lachrymæ Antiquæ (“old tears”; the music of which would subsequently become the well-known song Flow, my teares)
  2. Lachrymæ Antiquæ Novæ (“old tears renewed”)
  3. Lachrymæ Gementes (“sighing tears”)
  4. Lachrymæ Tristes (“sad tears”)
  5. Lachrymæ Coactæ (“forced tears”)
  6. Lachrymæ Amantis (“a lover’s tears”)
  7. Lachrymæ Veræ (“true tears”)

Interspersed between these episodes are six Dowland songs, five of which are taken from his three books “of Songs or Ayres” published between 1597 and 1603: Come, heavy Sleep from Book 1, I saw my lady weep and Sorrow, stay from Book 2, and Lend your ears to my sorrow and I must complain from Book 3. The sixth song is In darkness let me dwell, one of Dowland’s most famous songs that was published separately a few years later. While the instrumental episodes are a more personal response to the Dowland material, Birtwistle’s approach with these songs has been simply to arrange them for voice and harp, leaving them otherwise unaltered. Read more

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JLIAT – J / S / A / E

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As COVID-19 gradually succeeds in bringing the entire globe to a depressing standstill, it seems as good a time as any for my Lent Series to look at some large-scale works that, from one perspective, could be said to be doing exactly the same. i’m usually very good at remembering first contact with music that makes a deep impression on me, but for the life of me i can’t recall how i first encountered the work of James Whitehead, aka JLIAT. i know it was a very long time ago, at least 15 years, and my hunch is that it was via his sequence of long-form drone pieces that constitute the earliest portion of his exceptionally eclectic output. Those last few words are vital: while drones have a place of significance, Whitehead’s musical outlook is one of the most radically and refreshingly questioning that i’ve ever come across, probing hard into the limits of how and what we define as music and even sound, particularly with regard to the way it’s represented, reproduced and reconstituted in the digital domain. To that end, his work is just as concerned, if not more so, with drone’s polar opposite, the ostensible chaos of noise, and beyond this it’s fair to regard more than a little of his work as conceptual in nature, as much about a sonic idea than a sonic artefact, though in all cases that artefact is always worth spending time with. Furthermore, while there’s a fair bit of whimsy in the JLIAT back catalogue, i’m always impressed at how deeply serious and considered it all is; it may be fun, but it’s never frivolous. Read more

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Mixtape #58 : Virus

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Sometimes deciding a theme for a mixtape can be a time-consuming business – but not this time. If anything, not making viruses the theme for the new 5:4 mixtape would just feel like being wilfully contrary. So – a couple of weeks earlier than scheduled – here it is, a tour through some of my favourites that feel more than a little pertinent to the remarkable times we’re currently experiencing. Not surprisingly with a topic such as this, a lot of the music is serious in tone, though the way this is articulated varies widely. Many explore a quiet, often unsettlingly (in)tense simmering (Nine Inch NailsJohn Oswald, Bass CommunionVykintas Baltakas, The Noisettes, Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch), occasionally featuring hot surges (Brian McOmber, Cat Temper, Ramin Djawadi, SaffronKeira, Toru Takemitsu, Necro Deathmort, Andrew Liles, Daphne Oram, Paul Haslinger). Some go beyond these limitations into ferocious incandescence (Man Without Country, Pan Sonic, Si Begg, Reza Solatipour), the complete opposite, eerie calm (Coleclough & Murmer, Ulrich Schnauss, Justin Hurwitz), or pounding, edgy regularity (Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi & Fajar Yuskemal, Picture Palace Music). The rest channel their sentiments into fierce, forthright vocals (Björk, Chelsea Wolfe, Crystal Castles, Moderat, Lydia Lunch, Cabaret Voltaire, Hecq with Nongenetic). A short jingle from Raymond Scott is a closing tongue-in-cheek moment that i hope is forgivable in these trying circumstances.

Two hours of pandemically-related tracks and tropes that are, in a multitude of ways and in the absolute best sense, highly infectious and hard to shake off. Below is the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud.

These are difficult times we’re living through at the moment. i sincerely hope you’re all keeping as safe, fit and healthy as you can, and that you’re taking advantage of any imposed isolation or downtime to explore lots of new music. Best wishes to all of you, wherever you are. Read more

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The Hafler Trio – An Answer

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Let’s turn our attention to drones. The respective roles of time and material are perhaps nowhere more controversial – and polarising – than in drone-based music. Even if you find yourself drawn into the complexities of one form of drone, another can push you away with its relative monotony. For precisely this reason, i’ve always been fascinated by drone music, and it’s an idiom that includes some of my absolute favourite compositions. i wrote about one of them some years ago as part of my ‘Contemporary Epics’ series: The Hafler Trio‘s miraculously wonderful ‘Trilogy in Three Parts‘. As well as being a work i return to very often, at the start of this year i had the pleasure of discussing it as part of an ongoing series of conversations between Andrew McKenzie and Thaddée Caillosse, exploring the Hafler Trio legacy. The episode in question focused specifically on the Trilogy, and our lengthy conversation touched on a considerable range of topics related to and arising from it, along the way revealing fascinating insights into the thought and compositional processes behind the music, plus more than a few tangential asides taking in philosophy, listening practices and love. Anyone interested in The Hafler Trio and wanting to glean more about McKenzie’s approach to his work may well find this conversation to be of interest. It’s available via the Simply Superior Bandcamp site, along with plenty of other juicy things pertinent to the entire Hafler Trio oeuvre. Dive in, and be prepared for a long swim.

Even more recently, McKenzie has dusted off and polished up his three contributions to the first series of releases by Fovea Hex. The Explanation, The Discussion and An Answer were originally released as limited edition bonus discs accompanying the EPs Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007). While many Fovea Hex releases have included accompanying remixes of their music, the three Hafler Trio pieces are rather more ambitious, best regarded as self-contained electronic works into which fragments and morsels of Fovea Hex material have been to a greater or lesser degree folded, embedded and woven. A decade and a half on from their original release, McKenzie has released a standalone edition of these pieces under a new, typically Haflerian, collective title: This is Our Problem: What Will Our Joy Be Then?. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Yes (UK Première)

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One of the foci of this year’s Lent Series exploring larger-scale works is where time and material become convoluted. In the case of the next work i’m exploring, this kind of convolution applies not only to the music but also to the text that inspired it. Yes by Rebecca Saunders is a work derived from, rather than a setting of, the epic final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Comprising just eight thought ‘utterances’ – to call them ‘sentences’ isn’t quite right as they mostly lack closing (or indeed any) punctuation – yet extending for over 24,000 words, this episode is known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, a dream-like torrent of memory and reflection run amok, much of it highly emotionally- and/or sexually-charged. Parsing such an overwhelming outpouring of words is no easy task, and personally speaking i prefer to listen to it spoken aloud, transforming it into a stunning two-hour tapestry in which events from throughout Molly’s life are recounted in somewhat arbitrary, non sequitur fashion. While we can infer importance of these events from the simple fact they are being recounted, it can be more difficult to discern the relative significance of these events as well as their associated emotional baggage: love, rage, hope, regret, anguish and ecstasy are all in there, often simultaneously.

Saunders’ 75-minute response to the text creates a musical analogue of this experience. A work for soprano and 19 soloists, Yes disperses the players throughout the performance space, establishing a sound environment that the audience is positioned within. One could fancifully regard this arrangement as like sitting inside Molly Bloom’s head, being surrounded by her tangled criss-crossing recollections and sentiments fired out by the neural network of musicians all around us. My own experience of the work, at the UK première that began the 2018 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was very much like this. On that occasion i commented in my original critique how the visual aspect of the work – as with many of Saunders’ works – felt like a distraction, and spending more time with the piece since then has reinforced that impression. Yes was admittedly performed in relatively low light, but being able to listen without any visual distractions – not inappropriate, i think, as it would be pushing it to describe Yes as having a ‘theatrical’ performance aspect – has greatly enhanced and deepened the experience. Furthermore, while Yes is something of a synthesis of Saunders’ two compositional modes – the players either individuated (for 24 of the work’s 25 modules) or united (in single module Nether, the only part of the piece to be conducted) – sonically speaking it isn’t easy to tell where the music switches between these modes. Read more

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Chubby Wolf – The Last Voices

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The next piece i’m exploring in this year’s Lent Series is The Last Voices by Danielle Baquet-Long, who released her solo work under the name Chubby Wolf. At 84 minutes long, it’s by far her longest piece, and the more i’ve spent time with it over the years, the more i’ve become convinced that it’s one of her best. It’s one of a number of works that her husband Will Long has made available since her death in 2009, each of which has testified further to the depth, scope and subtlety of Baquet-Long’s skill and talent. Her loss remains a profound one.

The way The Last Voices harnesses time is fascinating. It’s tempting to ponder whether the piece ultimately does anything or goes anywhere – but that immediately prompts a necessary follow-up consideration: how do we define ‘doing’ or ‘going’? The opening minutes of the piece act as something of a paradigm for everything that follows. It’s like listening to a half-focused or blurred ‘tonic’ chord gently oscillating on its axis. As such it sounds resolved yet not exactly final; there’s a prevailing impression that there’s more to come, though equally a sense that if the music were to stop right now it would sound completely natural and make perfect sense. As time passes, it consolidates the feeling that something fundamental – in both musical and non-musical senses – is omnipresent, yet Baquet-Long has allowed considerable scope for the music to move and roam, to explore and grow, never sounding constricted. This movement is generally, though very loosely, articulated in what could be thought of as extended exhalations, punctuated with brief gathering points to draw breath that also allow a moment or two for the preceding resonance (sonic and internal) to be savoured. Read more

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Kenneth Kirschner – January 1, 2019

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It’s the first day of Lent, and also therefore the start of this year’s 5:4 Lent Series. Three years ago my focus was on miniature works, and for 2020 i’m going in the opposite direction, exploring compositions that occupy larger-scale durations. However, this is not simply about pieces that are ‘epic’ (something i’ve examined before) but more about the way time is used (by the composer) and perceived (by the listener). For that reason, in general i’m not going to be looking at sectional works or cycles, which are lengthy simply because they’re made up of numerous individual component parts, or operas, which are invariably longer due to the fact that it takes a while to tell a decent narrative. That being said, there will be exceptions to both of those exclusions.

i’m beginning this year’s Lent Series with a recent work by a composer who has made me think more about time than anyone else: Kenneth Kirschner. Kirschner’s work has intrigued and fascinated me for many years. On the one hand, in many respects i feel i know it well; i’ve spent time with everything he’s made available over the last couple of decades – which, depending how you classify what counts as a ‘composition’, amounts to as many as 185 pieces – and have written about his music on numerous occasions, most extensively in the 2014 book Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner (available as a free PDF download). It was Kirschner’s work that inspired and helped shape my thinking about what i ultimately called the ‘steady state’, the structural concept in which short-term change and long-term stasis combine to create a never-/ever-changing musical tapestry that’s always the same, yet always new. That description could almost be said to apply to Kirschner’s output itself; many of his compositions evoke, allude to or at least resemble many of his other compositions: always the same, yet always new. Yet for all the knowledge and familiarity with it, Kirschner’s music keeps you on your toes, regularly coming as a surprise. Always the same, always new. Read more

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Jennifer Walshe – A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

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There are times, believe it or not dear reader, when i honestly wonder if i’m starting to get a little bit jaded. Listening can feel like a chore, and the endless parade of the novelty and the newfangled can blur into a torrent of ‘musica generica’ that becomes (at best) boring and (at worst) suffocating. Enter Jennifer Walshe. If there’s one artist whose work is always guaranteed to beguile, intrigue and fascinate, it’s Walshe. Above all, she is endlessly refreshing, presenting unexpected ideas in unexpected ways that are often as hilarious to experience as they are engrossing and confusing.

To say her latest release is no exception is to put it very mildly indeed. It’s essentially a collision between acoustic, in the form of Walshe’s voice, and electronic, in the form of machine learning duo Dadabots. The latter set to work training their neural network on recordings of Walshe singing through centuries’ worth of music history. The first remarkable product of this unique collaboration is A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance, 40 minutes of sonic disjecta membra that Douglas Adams might have described as being almost, but not quite, entirely unlike vocal music.

Anyone with a passing understanding of machine learning from the perspective of music will perhaps know what to expect here. Machine? – check; learning? – hmm, not so much. The extent to which it’s obvious in these 17 tracks that their origins lie in Jennifer Walshe’s vocal cords varies extremely widely. Not that that matters, of course; what’s more important here isn’t the fidelity of the process but the evolution of the process, the ongoing strenuous effort being made to attempt to parse, understand and reproduce – and then beholding the startlingly marvellous results in all of their discombobulating ineptitude. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Riot Ensemble, Illuminate, Electric Spring, Borealis, Philharmonia Orchestra, Louth Contemporary Music Society

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Lots of ensembles and festivals have been making concert announcements recently, so here’s a whistle-stop tour through some of the more interesting on the horizon.

Most imminent, this coming Friday (14th), is Riot Ensemble at King’s Place in London. They’ll be kicking off their new concert series ReNew with a trio of works: Liza Lim‘s Extinction events and dawn chorus (which has just been released on CD; review to come soon), Laurence Osborn‘s CTRL and Like a memory of birds (ii) by Riot conductor Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

Maybe it’s just me but i can’t think of many better ways to spend Valentine’s Day. Full details here.


Also this week, also in London, is the latest Illuminate concert, which this time finds them at the Royal College of Music. The programme once again consists of an interesting blend of new and not-so-new, including Jennifer Higdon‘s Dark Wood and Kaija Saariaho‘s Mirrors alongside Amy Beach‘s Pastorale for Woodwind Quintet and Henriëtte BosmansString Quartet.

The concert starts at 3pm and there’s a pre-concert chinwag an hour beforehand with Illuminate’s Angela Slater and the RCM’s Natasha Loges; both events are FREE, but tickets are required: you can get them here (talk) and here (concert).


Next week sees the return of the Electric Spring festival in Huddersfield. Once again spread over five days from Wednesday to Sunday, this year’s concerts will feature five new works for organ and electronics performed by Lauren Redhead & Alistair Zaldua, a large-scale workout for Huddersfield’s equally large-scale HISS system from Louise Rossiter, an evening of who-knows-what from Weston Olencki and what will surely be a typically marvellous son et lumière display from Leafcutter John. There’ll also be a couple of installations running throughout by Simon Whetham (in the Richard Steinitz Building’s vast Atrium space) and Jackson Mouldycliff, plus a workshop with Pam Hulme and the usual Creative Coding Lab Symposium and geekalicious Modular Meets session on Sunday afternoon.

As ever, all events are FREE; full details here.


Beyond these shores, the programme for this year’s Borealis festival in Bergen has been announced. Borealis remains one of the most adventurous new music festivals i’ve ever attended, and this year is no exception. Trying to single out highlights is ridiculous considering pretty much everything is likely to be one, but especially interesting will be the world première of SOLD (a dog and pony show) – a new performance piece from chameleon-like vocalist Stine Janvin; assorted works by George Lewis performed by the wonderful Norwegian Naval Forces Band at the Natural History Museum; Ecstatic Material, a multimedia work from Beatrice Dillon & Keith Harrison that sounds like it will be not only sonically interesting but also downright sticky; Knut Vaage‘s new electroacoustic piece Hybrid spetakkel being premièred by BIT20 Ensemble; a three-way concert featuring John Chantler, Okkyung Lee & Nina Pixel; and a four-part evening of music celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings featuring the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

It all promises to be outrageously fascinating and/or fascinatingly outrageous – the festival runs from 4 to 8 March, and full details can be found here.


The Philharmonia Orchestra’s next set of Music of Today concerts (curated by Unsuk Chin) is looking good. Next month there’ll be the chance to hear music by Xenakis and Aribert Reimann on 5 March (featuring pianist Nic Hodges), and two weeks later works by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Helena Tulve. On 14 May, percussionist Colin Currie will be giving the first performance of Luke Bedford‘s latest piece alongside music by Philippe Hurel, while the following week’s concert features three world premières from Joel Järventausta, Jocelyn Campbell and Hollie Harding.

All four concerts are FREE; the 19th March concert (Salonen and Tulve) is at the Purcell Room and needs a pre-booked ticket, but for all of the rest, at the Royal Festival Hall, you can just turn up; full details here.


Slightly further ahead is Louth Contemporary Music Society‘s annual two-day shindig, which this year is titled ‘The Gathering’. It gets its name from a string quartet by Christos Hatzis, which will be performed by the Esposito Quartet. There’ll also be new works from Leo Brouwer, Pascale Criton and Gloria Coates, and the festival will close with one of Estonia’s finest choirs, Vox Clamantis, presenting works by Helena Tulve, Kevin Volans, Siobhán Cleary and (surprise, surprise) Arvo Pärt.

‘The Gathering’ runs from 19 to 20 June in Dundalk on the east coast of Ireland; full details can be found here, and impressively cheap early bird tickets are available now.

Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 2)

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As i mentioned previously, allusions to or evocations of nature were few and far between at this year’s Dark Music Days, indicating the strength and diversity of Iceland’s more searching, abstract approach to composition.

This seemed to be precisely the point of Sigurður Árni Jónsson’s Illusion of Explanatory Depth, premièred by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason as part of ‘Yrkja’, an annual programme to support up-and-coming composers. More than most works I heard at this year’s festival, the piece was clearly all ‘about’ sound itself, articulated via an involving conversation between sections of the orchestra. It was exceptionally dynamic, fluctuating between overblown bursts of pseudo-romantic passion – principally heard in a short, recurring motif – and extended sequences of exploratory convolution. Over time, the orchestra never idling for a second, it created the distinct sense of an intense inner turmoil, governed by spontaneity – yet this sense was regularly challenged by that uncanny recurring motif. A fascinating piece. The same couldn’t be said for the other ‘Yrkja’ work, Lo and Behold by Eygló Höskuldsdóttir Viborg. Nominally taking inspiration from Werner Herzog, the piece was a pure slice of the kind of saccharine fare one is forced to endure throughout pretty much any nature documentary these days. It’s hard to find musical aspirations such as these admirable, particularly when they’re so overtly manipulative; it was like being continually poked: “be uplifted, be amazed, be joyful, be happy”. NO. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Interlude)

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As an interlude to my coverage of the 2020 Dark Music Days, I have to say something about two artworks that weren’t part of the festival but which contributed significantly to my time in Reykjavík.

First is CAT 192, the product of a collaboration in 2013 by composer Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson and conductor Ilan Volkov. It’s not so much music as a piece of performance art for the main hall, Eldborg, within the city’s principal concert venue Harpa. The work literally ‘plays’ the hall, utilising the array of doors and chambers, the shutters, blinds and curtains, as well as the lights and part of the stage canopy.

It was decidedly uncanny. Being inside Eldborg when it’s essentially empty (at the performance I attended there were maybe around 40 people) was somewhat unnerving, mainly due to the hall’s deeply glowering red walls which, now dimly lit in an otherwise very dark space, gave off the air of some kind of malevolent presence. This heightened the experience of witnessing the hall’s ‘limbs’ moving seemingly of their own accord. It was as if an artificial intelligence, or even the beginnings of some kind of self-willed sentience, had spontaneously occurred at Harpa, which was now awake and flexing its muscles for the first time. Though in some ways rather primitive – it was, after all, limited to the range of motions the hall can make – CAT 192 was nonetheless an effective and amusing ballet for the building, highlighting also the tones, rhythms and other sonic throbs, thrums and patterns that emerged from its various movements, which were all the more striking when it wasn’t immediately possible to tell what or where the sounds were coming from. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 1)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 2 Comments

It no doubt goes without saying that Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival is primarily named for the fact that it takes place in January, when the amount of daylight the country receives is minimal. In a less literal sense, though, musically speaking there’s a lot to be said for listening in the dark. I don’t just mean the obvious, actually sitting in darkness – the way that last year’s Dark Music Days got up and running – but I’m also thinking of the relationship we have with music, our expectations and considerations of it prior to, and during, the act of listening. Personally, I increasingly find that knowing less beforehand, going into a concert ‘cold’ without consulting programme notes and the like until afterwards, is a valuable, even vital, way to approach new music. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam Delta XV (UK Première)

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To conclude my Éliane Radigue birthday weekend, i’m returning to a work in the Occam series that i’ve briefly written about previously, Occam Delta XV. The piece dates from 2018 and results from a collaboration between Radigue and Quatuor Bozzini. In a way that i hope isn’t too fanciful, the overall structure of the piece is a kind of macrocosm for the moment-by-moment liminality that i’ve been discussing in these articles, and which continually serves to make the Occam works teeter between certainty and vagueness, volatility and calm.

Although the first section of the piece exhibits exactly this same kind of unstable stability, the rich opening chord is delicately robust (i previously described it as “simultaneously final yet provisional”), as if we were hearing a drawn-out resolution – like a squeezebox impossibly moving in only one direction – the composition seemingly ending as soon as it’s begun. But this is Éliane Radigue, and in due course the integrity of this chord becomes slowly undermined and begins to unravel. It’s a process that starts with small-scale, barely noticeable judders, but beyond that it isn’t easy to describe exactly how it happens. It’s rather like the individual pitches gradually migrating tiny distances away from their centres, thereby imperceptibly changing the language of the chord, its inner emphases and, ultimately, its very nature. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam XXI

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The second of the three works i’m exploring in this Éliane Radigue birthday long weekend is also the most austere. Not only is Occam XXI for a single instrument, violin, but also in contrast to perhaps the majority of the Occam series, the harmonic language of the piece is radically pared back, focusing exclusively on just two pitches, G and D. Yet i can’t help feeling that that almost ascetic level of restriction ends up providing perhaps the clearest possible demonstration of the liminality displayed in all of Radigue’s Occam works, always teetering back and forth between opposing senses of stability and instability, fluidity and stasis.

In Occam XXI there’s a similar demonstration of this to that found at the start of Occam River XV. A single pitch G hovers for around two minutes all by itself, and during that time, in addition to wavering and trembling there’s even hints of an inner rhythm, as if we were somehow becoming able to hear the individual pulses – all 392 of them, each second! – that create this pitch. i say 392, but perhaps i mean 784, as even at this stage it’s somewhat unclear which octave the G inhabits, and/or whether we’re glimpsing an upper overtone of a lower pitch. Ambiguity from the outset. Ds and additional Gs emerge in similarly inscrutable fashion, along the way causing strange, brief lowercase pulsings later on that i’ve never been able to decide whether or not are deliberate (or even partly imaginary). But in terms of details, there’s not much more one can say – as i mentioned before, Occam XXI is primarily a kind of archetype vehicle for the essence of Radigue’s critical forms of quasi- (or should that be pseudo-?) equilibrium. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam River XV (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | 2 Comments

A composer whose work i return to more often than most – and find the experience completely different every time i do – is Éliane Radigue. Today is the grande dame’s 88th birthday – joyeux anniversaire! – so, as i did a few years ago, i’m going to devote another long weekend to her music, focusing on the ever-expanding series of works bearing the name Occam. If there’s one thing that could be said to typify Radigue’s Occam series it’s liminality, the creation of a music that is located at a critical point between tension and resolution, movement and rest. One of the most fascinating aspects of this is the way it thereby sounds both endless, broadening our listening horizons to a limitless scope, and infinitesimal, making us focus on the most minute shifts and changes in its quasi-stasis, a classic example of a steady state.

Occam River XV dates from 2017, the product of a collaboration between Radigue, violinist Angharad Davies and double bassist Dominic Lash. That liminality i spoke of is apparent even from the work’s tentative opening moments. A solitary D hangs in the space for nearly a full minute, but not for one second does that note sit still. It wavers and trembles, gently surges and recedes, starting to sound more and more like an electronic tone that’s being tweaked and filtered, in the process altering its timbre and hinting at varying quantities of overtones. Yet it’s still essentially just a D. Whether or not the note is stable depends on your perception, but i’ll suggest the only answer is both, stable and unstable simultaneously. Read more

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Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir – Vernacular; Siggi String Quartet – South of the Circle; Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Concurrence

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In just over a week’s time Iceland’s premier new music festival, the Dark Music Days, will be up and running again, and once again i’ll be heading off to Reykjavík to immerse myself in some of the goings-on. Details about the festival can be found here, and for any UK dwellers who fancy a spontaneous jaunt over to Iceland, there are some fantastically cheap deals to be had from Gatwick and Bristol (especially, with Bristol, if you travel on a Wednesday or Sunday), and some equally great deals to be found on AirBnB. As an upbeat to the festival, it’s a good time to touch on a number of releases that came out last year on the Sono Luminus label, showcasing some of the more exciting examples of Icelandic contemporary music-making. Read more

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Mixtape #57 : Best Albums of 2019

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Happy New Year!

i want to start this year by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all of you who have followed and supported 5:4 in the last year, particularly my delectable band of Patrons. Hot on the heels of my Best Albums of 2019 list, i’m beginning 2020 with the usual mixtape comprising selections from each of those 40 albums. It rather nicely encapsulates another year of breathtaking musical imagination and ingenuity, exploring a typically eclectic range of styles, attitudes and aesthetics.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with the start time for each track in the mix; links to obtain the music can be found in the previous two days’ articles. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed. Read more

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