New releases: Simon Steen-Andersen, Monty Adkins & Stephen Harvey, Jennifer Walshe

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My round-up of the most interesting new releases this time features three objects: a film, a box and a book, each desirable for very different reasons. The film, available from Dacapo Records, is a much-to-be-celebrated DVD release of Simon Steen-Andersen‘s bewilderingly marvellous work Black Box Music. The memory of my first encounter with the piece at HCMF 2012 is still very vivid, and that’s entirely due to the skilful blend of wit and virtuosity that is encapsulated both within and without the box. It’s true that Steen-Andersen’s work doesn’t always hit home as successfully as this, but that criticism seems almost churlish when confronted by the frankly amazing breadth of his imagination. In Black Box Music, a solo performer directs and interacts with two spatially separated groups of instrumentalists; these directions and interactions come via a camera feed from inside the titular box, filming the soloist’s hands. Cast in three movements, it progresses from a kind of ‘warming up’ to a dazzling display of apparent cause and effect, the soloist’s gestures seemingly eliciting certain types of material and behaviour from the players; but there are times when this becomes subverted, suggesting the relationship is rather more complex than seemed at first. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Mannequin (World Première)

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Last night saw the first performance of Unsuk Chin‘s new orchestral piece Mannequin, performed at Sage Gateshead by the National Youth Orchestra—who, these days, can seemingly play anything—conducted by Ilan Volkov. The work’s four movements are subtitled “tableaux vivants”, ‘living pictures’ that are rooted in several episodes from E. T. A. Hoffman’s story The Sandman. i say ‘rooted’, but in fact ‘imbued’ would be a better word; if anything has characterised Chin’s music in the last few years it is an increasing tendency towards gestural material, which is in turn formed into intricate textural fabrics. That abstract shapes and forms such as these operate to enact very concrete moods and ideas—usually, as here, directly invoking literary narratives—makes for an exciting and highly dramatic dichotomy. Chin has likened the work to what she calls an “imaginary choreography”, even going so far as to express the hope that it will be literally choreographed at some point, uniting abstract and concrete ideas of movement in another way.
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Rebecca Saunders – Void (World Première)

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To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca SaundersVoid, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:

A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.

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Mix Tape #33 : Purple

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For the new 5:4 Mix Tape i’ve rather whimsically adopted my favourite colour—purple—as the theme. That colour invites a host of hues and shades, so the mix includes track titles alluding to the entirety of that part of the spectrum, including heliotrope, lavender, fuchsia, pink, plum, magenta, indigo, amethyst, violet and even ultraviolet. Such an oblique connection has enabled me to unleash a more-than-usually eclectic selection, taking in piano works (Ramon Humet, Luke Stoneham, George Crumb, David Rakowski), synthpop (John Foxx & Louis Gordon, Frida Sundemo), ambient (Peter Wright, Specta Ciera, Frond, Saturday IndexDick Mills, The Denisovans, Tor LundvallDarren Harper), rock – electronic, math and (ir)regular (Nine Inch Nails, Frank Zappa, Sleeping People), easy listening (Enoch Light), electronica (World’s End Girlfriend, Time Attendant, Bauri, The Flashbulb, Labyrinth Ear, Da Wei), avant garde classical (Chiyoko Szlavnics, Aaron Cassidy), folk (Steve Peters), indie pop (StopTalk, The William Blakes), fusion (David Murphy), drum and bass (Tim Exile) and noise (K2). Read more

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Arne Nordheim – Spur

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For the penultimate work in my Lent Series exploring concertos, i’m turning to the innovative Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim, who died in 2010. He composed Spur for accordion and orchestra 40 years ago; the title is a German word meaning ‘track’ or ‘(foot)print’, which here, in part, relates to the sociological connotations that the concerto has for Nordheim:

The history of the concerto as a medium of communication is without any doubt closely interlinked with its role as intermediary between social convention and individual freedom and the process through which individual creativity is absorbed to become common property, leaving behind footprints and signposts in culture.

The programme note also alludes to the footprints made by the soloist on the rest of the players. And this, i think, is what projects most immediately, as the accordion’s very particular timbral qualities—which consistently blur the distinction between acoustic and electronic—make an instant impression on the orchestra, befuddling and inspiring it in equal measure. Low undulating buzzes, eerily static high pitches, wild dissonant scrunches, angular acrobatic leaps, each of these appear in the soloist’s music within minutes and, although they will eventually form the blueprint for most of their activities, the orchestral reaction initially seems not to have a clue what to do in response. They emit a huge burp, but then opt, via the strings, for an ethereal collection of slow-moving lines, providing the context for the soloist to quieten and become pensive. That gear-change was instigated by the orchestra, and as if reflecting on that point, the accordion becomes more forceful, resembling a surly, pocket-sized brass/wind section. Read more

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Pierre Boulez – Domaines

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Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!

Today’s the day, the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and, continuing the concerto theme, the piece with which i’d like to celebrate the occasion is Domaines, for clarinet and orchestra, completed in 1969. Typically, the piece began life a decade earlier (early sketches pertaining to it, tentatively titled ‘Labyrinthe’, date back to April 1959), and also typically evolved via the material for other compositions. During the 1960s Boulez was working on a cantata for baritone and ensemble, setting texts by E. E. Cummings; this would ultimately lead, in 1970, to cummings ist der dichter, but a couple of years prior to that Boulez took material from the nascent work, together with ideas for an opera (never completed) and refashioned it into Domaines, both as a solo work as well as one involving six instrumental groups, with a gradually increasing number of players:

  1. bass clarinet
  2. marimba, contrabass
  3. oboe, horn, guitar (amplified)
  4. alto trombone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone
  5. flute, alto saxophone, bassoon, C trumpet, harp
  6. 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos

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Pierre Boulez – Messagesquisse

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The second concerto-esque work by Pierre Boulez that i want to explore this week is Messagesquisse for cello solo and six cellos. The gestation of this piece was very much more straightforward than that of Mémoriale, being composed in 1976 as a 70th birthday present for that great champion of so much contemporary music, Paul Sacher (Boulez’s Sur incises would be another birthday present for Sacher 20 years later). The title overlaps the words ‘messages’ and ‘sketch’ at the letters “es”, being both the first letter of Sacher’s surname and the German term for the pitch E-flat. This is indicative of the kind of thing Boulez gets up to in Messagesquisse, where Sacher’s entire surname is translated into musical pitches—E♭, A, C, B♭ (H in German), E, D (presumably from the solfège Re)—forming a hexachord that is subjected to considerable serial and motivic treatment. Sixes occur elsewhere too: as well as the ensemble group of cellos, the work is structured with this many sections. Read more

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