Anna Meredith – Four Tributes to 4am (World Première)

by 5:4

It’s high time we caught up with some premières here on 5:4; there have been quite a few on Radio 3 in the last few months, and by the look of things, there are going to be many more in the near future. Last night, the first performance of a new work by Anna Meredith was broadcast, performed by sinfonia ViVA (a group i’d not come across before) under the direction of André de Ridder. Meredith’s relationship to the ensemble is “Composer in the House”, and both that title, together with sinfonia ViVA’s choice of upper-/lower-case tomfoolery, suggest an attempt at a slightly edgy, Jamie Oliver kind of attitude to music-making, piled high with lashings of street cred.

What Meredith provided seems entirely in keeping with that model; titled Four Tributes to 4am, her piece originates in an exploration of “the crossover point between yesterday and tomorrow, at the deadest part of the night”. Inspiration for this came via an autumnal perambulation round the city of Derby, soaking up the urban atmos. Meredith has focused on four geographical points that are then depicted as musical ‘portraits’. All highly programmatic stuff, and after a few minutes, there’s a distinct sense of Meredith wanting to conjure up a Richard Strauss-esque kind of evocation. It’s probably not very fair to contrast the idea of sunrise in the Alps with a nocturnal tramp around the streets of Derby, but all the same, in no time at all this piece reveals itself as flat and cliché-ridden, the worst kind of imitative programme music. To be fair, there are moments when the stillness is married to a kind of electricity—both figurative and literal; Meredith incorporates electronics in this piece—that is nicely effective, but these moments are rare. Later, it briefly aspires to the spirit of Adès’ notorious ‘Ecstasio’ movement from Asyla, before disintegrating into a slow, plodding drum beat that palls very, very quickly but is maintained relentlessly and pointlessly.

The trouble with this piece is that it all hangs so much on its overarching concept, which in itself has questionable interest. Perhaps this is a faithful portrait of Derby in the early hours; who knows? but who really cares? One can only hope that it works with the visuals (provided by Meredith’s sister); without them, the music sounds desperately in search of an idea, disoriented rather than episodic. Taken in isolation, it’s flaccid, feeble stuff, and fails dismally as a piece of concert music.

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I hope I will be pardoned if I submit a dissenting view. This is by FAR the best work — faint praise though it be — of its multifarious dubious kinds (instruments with electronics, wannabe "raveyness", wannabe hip-with-it-ness – the sorts of things that conjure images of enormous turds floating in a Platonic Ideal Unflushed Toilet). The irruptions of electronics are effective (no "Repons"-type Supreme Agonies of Pierre Boulez giving birth to a glorified guitar pedal here), the instrumental writing and textures are excellent, and the execution of the concept unexceptionable (I, very differently, found the "plodding beat" section effective – perhaps an accident of varying moods at time of hearing, but enough to suggest the work merits a reconsideration).
To be clear, this is work whose epiphenomena — everthing from the title to the portrait of the composer — screams "awful" to me; I very pleasantly found it to be nothing of the kind.


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