A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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New releases: NEOS box sets – Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014, Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 3: Ensembles

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What with the increase in listeners turning away from physical releases in favour of digital downloads, and in light of yet another (admittedly somewhat spurious) article this week offhandedly proclaiming the imminent death of the album, the efforts of German label NEOS to put out large, lavish box sets are both absurd and marvellous in their optimistic enthusiasm. No other label does contemporary music like NEOS; in terms of quality and quantity, they are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, with an immense breadth of scope that’s doggedly committed to some of the most risk-taking, experimental music-making going on anywhere.

It’s NEOS who are responsible for issuing annual accounts of the goings-on at the Donaueschinger Musiktage (this year’s begins in a little over a week). The 2014 festival is represented, as usual, with a box set of four discs, though on this occasion the fourth disc is a DVD. The set features twelve large-scale compositions (many of them world premières), running to nearly seven hours of music, affording one the rare opportunity really to immerse oneself in a festival; for once, the cliché that it’s the next best thing to actually being there is entirely true. It would take a dissertation to discuss them all, but there are several that stand out more than the rest, such as Friedrich Cerha‘s Nacht for orchestra, seemingly split down the middle with its first half occupied with complex textures moving from high to low registers. The second half is sparer and more melodic, and has something of the searching freedom that typified the free atonal period; it’s really very lovely, with a later sense of poised tension released in a last-minute burst. For the first 90 seconds of Hanspeter Kyburz‘s Ibant obscuri, barely anything happens; but then, suddenly, it lurches out of the shadows, and the sheer size of his large orchestra makes itself intimidatingly felt in loud shrieks and thrusting accents (i’m not doing justice to it, it sounds literally massive). A bit like Cerha, its latter half has a melodic urge, seeking expression amidst a chaos of wonderfully unpredictable turbulence (including something akin to a wobble-board duet). The final few minutes are thrilling, ending in dazed repetitions of a single low note. Read more

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Proms 2016: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who expressed your views on this year’s Proms premières, it’s always fascinating to compare my own responses with those of so many others, particularly when we disagree! Since closing the polls a few days ago, i’ve fed the results (791 votes) into what has become by now quite a clever little spreadsheet—and voilà, here’s a summary of how you all voted.

Worst New Work

Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie

i must admit i’ve wondered whether my own negative reaction to this piece was somewhat churlish considering how much fun Auerbach is evidently aiming it to be. Further reflections haven’t changed my mind, however—if anything, they’ve reinforced it—and the majority of you clearly felt similarly. To quote from my review: “doggerel masquerading as playful pastiche”; certainly a worthy (if that’s the right word) piece to be judged the worst of this year’s premières.

Runners Up

Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes
Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures

Yes, i can see where you’re coming from. While Auerbach’s was, to my mind, the only really egregious example of barrel-bottom-scraping, Lindberg’s was almost an unimpressive. His work in recent years seems to exhibit a kind of laziness, relying on well-worn tropes, that’s disappointing considering how impressive have been some examples of his earlier output. In this particular instance, the Beethoven red herring gives it even less credit. Grime’s music clearly needs an overhaul, pure and simple. It’s limited in scope, tautological and superficial, which is all the more frustrating considering there are moments in the Two Eardley Pictures when one detects something altogether more engagingly nebulous lurking beneath that ultra-crystal clear surface.

Best New Work

Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer

Not my own personal favourite, but a work i enjoyed very much. i still think it’s a risk, de Leeuw extending this lengthy nocturnal meditation to a duration of almost 50 minutes, but i still think he gets away with it (just), avoiding clichés and norms in favour of an ambiguous, spontaneous narrative that’s often strikingly vivid (i can never get that dog’s barking out of my head).

Runners Up

Jörg Widmann – Armonica
Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto

For me, these were the real highlights. i love the mixture of simplicity and complexity that permeates Widmann’s luscious soundworld. It’s a tension that allows one to enjoy the work on a number of levels of engagement; i certainly find more in it each time i hear it. Berkeley’s concerto has, i hope, proved to those who needed convincing that he’s not simply one of the old guard, but a composer simultaneously looking back and forward, embracing the best of both worlds. Beyond this, it’s extremely refreshing to witness a composer being so emotionally raw, a quality that seems to have become alien (or, at best, rationalised) in most contemporary music circles. His concerto ranks among the very best new works that the Proms has heard in recent years.

And in case you’re interested, among the remaining premières, it was Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow that left most of you supremely indifferent, another verdict with which i can readily agree. Once again, i tip my critical hat to the acuity of your discernment.

As i said before the season began, i had been tempted not to bother reviewing this year’s new works, due to the timidity of the selected composers, and while it’s turned out to be more interesting than i’d feared, there’s no doubt at all that the Proms seems to have barely a clue about contemporary music. One of its worst offences, which i’ve probably mentioned every year, is its singular lack of interest in/awareness of electroacoustic music, expanding instrumental groups with electronics. It seems the Proms believes you’re either entirely acoustic and therefore classical, or you use electronics and you’re therefore pop. i couldn’t give a monkey’s about the Proms’ insistence on including pop-related concerts—that’s even less of a crime than clapping between movements (which isn’t and never has been a crime anyway, so shush)—but their ignorant failure to explore what contemporary composers are doing to integrate acoustic and electronic composition is as embarrassing as it is shameful. Proms director David Pickard seriously needs to up his game.

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Alba New Music

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A quick heads-up about a forthcoming mini festival that will, i’m sure, turn out to pack a punch inversely proportional to its duration. Alba New Music is a new Scottish charity “devoted to celebrating the sonic avant garde”. Following a couple of one-off gigs earlier this year, they’re launching their first weekend of concerts, which will take place in Edinburgh on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 October. The line-up/repertoire is lip-smackingly inviting: on the Friday evening, Huddersfield guitar hero Diego Castro Magas will be giving a recital including music by Wieland Hoban and Richard Barrett alongside two works by Aaron CassidyThe Pleats of Matter (which i found positively ear-boggling back at Electric Spring 2015) and the first UK performance of the electronics-only permutation of The wreck of former boundaries. Saturday is crammed with three events, starting with a free lunchtime concert by Edinburgh Experimental Musicians, including a diverse mix of pieces by John Hails, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Robert Ashley and Pauline Oliveros. In the early evening, flautist Richard Craig will be performing music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough and Fabrice Fitch, followed later by singer Peyee Chen, who’ll be getting her teeth stuck into works by George Aperghis, Michael Finnissy, Erin Gee, Scott McLaughlin and Jennifer Walshe.

Talk about hitting the ground running – it promises to be a fantastic and pretty intense couple of days. The main concerts are £8 a pop or you can do a triple-whammy for just £20. Full details on the Alba New Music website. i’ll be there trying to get my head around it all, so reviews to follow in due course.


Blasts from the Past: Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries, Blasts from the Past | 3 Comments

On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:

The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.

Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more

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New releases: symphonies by Paul von Klenau, Peter Maxwell Davies, Andrzej Panufnik, Xiaogang Ye & Per Nørgård

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It’s high time i got back to appraising some of the more interesting new releases. No fewer than three contemporary pieces bearing the title ‘symphony’ were performed at this year’s Proms, and coincidentally quite a few of the CDs i’ve been sent have also featured 20th and 21st century symphonies. What constitutes a ‘symphony’ these days is a good question, one that these six albums don’t so much answer as offer an assortment of interpretations of what it might mean. Read more

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New digital EP: Studies, vol. 1

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It’s been a while since my last CD release, so i’m especially pleased to announce that, a few days ago, i brought out a new EP, the first in an ongoing series. Those of you familiar with my earlier electronic work will know that there’s been a tendency to embrace extremes. My last two discs, Night Liminal and Dither • Pother • Roil exemplify that pretty strongly. For the last couple of years, my electronic music has turned away from this mode of expression, focusing instead on a more indirect, allusive type of utterance, which has its roots in one of my earliest electronic pieces, Triptych, May/July 2009, as well as the Simulated Music cycle.

This has resulted in a growing collection of Studies, pieces that primarily explore my interest in structuring sound materials from an initially visual perspective, many of which i regard as something that might be called ‘Op Music’, a sonic equivalent of Op Art. Diverse in character, some highly abstract, others moving through clear progressions and processes of evolution and development, these Studies are all entirely synthetic, sculpted from raw electronic sounds without use of existing sound materials. As in much of my earlier work, the juxtaposition of pitch and noise and the reappraisal of what defines each (and their boundaries) continue to be recurring features of these pieces.

i’ll be making a selection of these Studies available in an ongoing series of digital-only EPs, the first of which, vol. 1, is now available, from my Bandcamp site (which includes lossless) as well as iTunes and Google Play. For those of you who like to try before you buy, the EP can be streamed via Spotify (embed below).

The accompanying artwork is by the Polish generative artist Tomasz Sulej, whose work i find inspiring and very beautiful, and which makes a perfect analogue for the soundworld of the Studies.

Further volumes of these pieces will be released during the months ahead.

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