20th Century

Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme

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This week sees the 70th birthday of one of the UK’s most significant composers, Brian Ferneyhough. For nearly fifty years, his music has been thrilling and discombobulating audiences in not entirely equal measure, pursuing his compositional goals with ruthless, painstaking rigour. As has long been the case with its most interesting and challenging composers, Ferneyhough’s music has never been strongly welcomed or well-received in the UK, and even the Barbican’s Total Immersion day devoted to him in 2011 essentially only comprised two concerts—to be admired of course, but not exactly an immersion, suggesting little has changed in terms of home-grown appreciation.

His music is to some extent a progression from the integral serialism arrived at by Stockhausen and Boulez in the 1950s, but only in terms of organisational precision; his work is not concerned with—indeed, is often wildly opposed to—the kind of balance that serialism seeks to explore. Multiple layers and an element of refraction—aspects of something heard in different ways from different angles, only slowly grasped, if at all—dominate the way his music presents itself. That makes it something of a formidable force from a listening perspective, and Ferneyhough himself has on numerous occasions spoken of the way he seeks to position the music always a bit ‘beyond’ the listener, inviting what he calls a kind of “meta-listening” (a term that raises more questions than it answers). Whether his music is any more ‘beyond’ an audience than many other composers’ work is debatable and in any case subjective, but regardless, one can never fail to be aware that there is very much more transpiring in a work by Ferneyhough than is immediately obvious.

The swiftest of glances at any of his scores underlines that fact; his use of notation is uniquely dense and florid, comprising the most intricately complex filigree. This aspect of his work has long proved to be the most controversial, provoking a rather tiring series of diatribes and apologias—almost always closed arguments, reinforcing existing prejudices—for the convolutions of Ferneyhough’s notational demeanour. This historically lopsided focus on the appearance of Ferneyhough’s music has no doubt been exacerbated by the lack of both available recordings and regular concert performances (my own first contact, in the mid-1990s, was almost entirely via his scores, for this very reason), a situation that has not drastically improved over the years. So as the composer approaches his 70th year, much still needs to be done. Whether 2013 will bring any efforts towards a more enlightened appraisal, or even an in-depth retrospective, remains to be seen. One can at least hope; and to that end this week on 5:4 is a celebration of Brian Ferneyhough’s music. Read more

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In Memoriam: Elliott Carter – Heart, not so heavy as mine

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Words by E. E. Cummings that came to mind last night following the first reports of the death of Elliott Carter, at the age of 103. i know i wasn’t alone in feeling an intensely heavy sadness at the news; one tended to think Carter was so single-mindedly alive that death couldn’t quite see the point in claiming him. But Carter is, at last, gone from us, and to mark his passing, here’s a relatively early work of his that seems rather fitting. It’s from a concert by the BBC Singers, conducted by Philippe Bach, which was broadcast in February this year.

Carter’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Heart, not so heavy as mine’ dates from 1938. It embraces the wistful sentiment of the words, the first two stanzas preoccupied by a single tonality (B-flat minor), as though grounded, fixed in place. As the words start to become imaginative, freed from their present isolation, Carter immediately switches to lively counterpoint and a wider harmonic palette, the voices now soaring over thoughts of birds and brooks, in a burst of reverie that’s all the more moving in light of its conclusion; for, just as it reaches a climax (“Without the knowing why”), the bass and tenor voices immediately return to the opening stanza, instantly bursting the song’s bubble. These words continue to infiltrate the optimistic coda, but Carter ultimately avoids ambivalence by letting the major tonality prevail.

It’s a piece that smiles albeit with tears in its eyes, which perhaps couldn’t be more appropriate. Very truly, a great man is gone.

Elliott Carter – Heart, not so heavy as mine

FLAC [22Mb]

Text
HEART not so heavy as mine,
Wending late home,
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune,—

A careless snatch, a ballad,
A ditty of the street;
Yet to my irritated ear
An anodyne so sweet,

It was as if a bobolink,
Sauntering this way,
Carolled and mused and carolled,
Then bubbled slow away.

It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a toilsome way
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why.

To-morrow, night will come again,
Weary, perhaps, and sore.
Ah, bugle, by my window,
I pray you stroll once more!

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In Memoriam: Hans Werner Henze – Symphony No. 5

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Yesterday brought the very sad news that the composer Hans Werner Henze has died. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary—i only know a little of Henze’s life, and have only really scratched the surface of his considerable output—but by way of a small tribute, here’s a performance of his Symphony No. 5. Henze’s ten symphonies vary greatly in their scope, scale and instrumentation, and the Fifth is one of his most concise, lasting around 15 minutes. Henze composed the symphony in 1962, a year after he had relocated to the Marino region of Italy (Henze left Germany for good in the early 1950s, revolted by its politics and homophobia). The nearby city of Rome was his primary inspiration; Henze described the symphony as dealing with “dramatic portrayals of sensual conflicts and joys prompted by the sensuous happiness of 20th century Rome, its people, its countryside and surroundings, and even by its somewhat harder dialect in comparison to that of Naples where I previously lived”. Read more

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Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) – Study No. 7

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Today is the 100th anniverary of the birth of North America’s most singularly unorthodox composer, Conlon Nancarrow. Born in Arkansas but spending most of his life in Mexico, Nancarrow’s legacy is dominated by the large number of studies he composed for the player piano. His compositional practice was a punctilious and painstaking one, establishing the rhythms and pitches of the piece and then slowly punching them as holes into the roll of piano paper—perhaps the earliest example of a composer using a ‘program’ to create instrumental music (interestingly, Nancarrow’s first such study dates from the late 1940s, the same time that computer programming was becoming a practical reality). Barely acknowledged until the last twenty years of his life, Nancarrow’s work eventually became recognised for what it is: a dazzling and entirely unique enigma, as well as the most thoroughgoing and fundamental re-evaluation and re-thinking of counterpoint since the time of J. S. Bach. Read more

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Tōru Takemitsu – From me flows what you call time (UK Première)

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It was on this day, in 1930, that one of my favourite composers, the great Tōru Takemitsu, was born. So to mark what would have been his 82nd birthday, here’s one of his most spectacular orchestral works, the wonderfully-named From me flows what you call time. The title is taken from a poem by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka, titled “Clear Blue Water”:

Makoto Ooka – Clear Blue Water

Summer trip to Switzerland:
in our bellies, sausages
eaten on the Zermatt terrace,
foot of the Matterhorn,
slowly turns into
heat: 1000 calories each.

As we climb up and up
the Furka Pass, my eyes
suddenly are perforated
by a billion particles
of heavenly blue:
across the valley a giant
mountain rampart:
The Glacier.

Swinging up its snow-
crowned sky-blue fist,
that ancient water spirit
shouts:

“From me
flows
what you
call Time.”

Down from that colossal
mass of shining ice
flows the majestic
River Rhone.

The piece is in part inspired by the Tibetan idea of the wind horse, an allegorical conception of the human soul, familiar to many in the well-known associated sequence of five coloured flags, representative of the elements: fire (red), water (blue), earth (yellow), sky (white) and wind (green). Takemitsu makes the number five significant; the work’s principal theme is essentially a five-note motif, and in addition to the orchestra he writes for a five-piece percussion ensemble. Percussion, in fact, dominates the piece, decked out with a plethora of exotic bells, chimes, gongs, singing bowls and drums to the point that it could almost be described as a percussion concerto. Nonetheless, though, the 30-minute work displays Takemitsu’s typically fine instrumental homogeneity, every instrument seemingly directed towards a common objective, albeit an objective that is often both nebulous and fluid. Takemitsu’s penchant for strolling around gardens when contemplating new compositions makes itself felt as much in this piece as in so many of his others, moving to and between a large number of ‘scenes’ or ‘vistas’, moments when his exquisite textural vagueness abruptly coalesces into something tangible. Read more

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Proms 2012: Rued Langgaard – Symphony No. 11 ‘Ixion’ & Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – Incontri (UK Premières)

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In a change to the planned schedule (due to Benedict Mason not having finished his new work meld), last Saturday’s Prom featured two UK premières, both by composers rarely heard on these shores. Difficult pieces—but for different reasons—they were given marvellously lucid performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Read more

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Jehan Alain – Trois Danses

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Today marks the anniversary of the death of Jehan Alain, one of the most interesting and enigmatic French composers of the first half of the twentieth century. To me, Alain’s unique musical sensibility draws comparison with two other composers; the free-spirited, swirling exoticism and spontaneous evocations of feeling suggest Alexander Scriabin, while the introspective, at times almost mystical nature of the music (particularly in his sense of pacing and remarkable use of melody) brings to mind the deep intensity of Alain’s great contemporary, Charles Tournemire. Alain has been on my mind a great deal lately, particularly as i’ve recently finished work on a lengthy electronic piece composed in Alain’s memory. Titled Night Liminal, it’ll be released on CD in the not-too-distant future; more information about that soon. But to commemorate today, here’s a recording of one of Alain’s most fascinating compositions, the Trois Danses, originally composed for piano in 1937, when Alain was 26 years old, and arranged for organ two years later. Alain also began making an orchestral arrangement of the work but the manuscript was famously sucked from the carriage of a moving train, and tragically never recovered. Read more

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