Anniversaries

Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

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Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focusing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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Schnittke Week – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, Piano Quintet

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The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most outstanding composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his music, focusing on works that were included in the Barbican’s ‘Seeking the Soul’ festival, in January 2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isn’t too bad considering.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled with melodic intentions, the quartet’s gestures all concerned with making something from small fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovich’s D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an emotionally neutral term as ‘Andante’ suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the movement, made yet more telling through Schnittke’s frequent rendering of the players in the guise of a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring, although it’s lost within moments; despite being labelled ‘Agitato’, no little time is spent occupied with dark, brooding material. Read more

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Björk – The Breezeblock & Mixing It Specials

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It’s more than a little staggering to realise that today is the 45th birthday of one Björk Guðmundsdóttir, an artist i’ve followed for the entirety of her solo career and continue to admire very much (one day, i hope to explore her complete output here—when i have a couple of spare months to devote to it, that is…); to mark the occasion, two special items from the 5:4 archive.

First is my complete recording of Mary Anne Hobbs’ Breezeblock Special, devoted to Björk, broadcast on 26 October 2004. Björk’s one-hour mix—in which every song is introduced at length by Björk herself—is wonderfully diverse, and a fascinating insight into the kind of music she finds inspirational, unsurprisingly including a number of artists with whom she’s been associated: Matmos are represented by ‘Regicide’, by no means their greatest track, while 808 State‘s ‘Cübik’ may well be their finest hour (although it’s not aging well).

Kukl, the ’80s band in which Björk was vocalist, is described by Wikipedia as an ‘anarcho-punk’ group, but if ‘Dismembered’ is typical of their music, it’s much too tame for an epithet like that; regardless, it’s pretty enjoyable stuff, the seed of what would become The Sugarcubes (conspicuously absent from the programme). and there’s plenty of Björk’s solo music too; the glorious ‘Hyperballad’ (her most remixed song) opens the programme, and there are two tracks from her superlative album Medúlla, released a couple of months earlier that year, performed live at Maida Vale; they’re remarkable versions of the songs—an Inuit choir, a bell orchestra and a throat singer are all involved—and while ‘Who Is It?’ was included on one of the CD singles of that song, as far as i know ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’ has not yet found its way onto an official release.

For the rest, despite the presence of one or two distinctly damp squibs (Kid 606‘s ‘Sugarcoated’ is a definite “must try harder” effort, and DAF‘s ‘Sato Sato’ quickly palls), the programme is an enthralling listen, and goes a long way to elaborate the more unconventional sounds and textures that have become ubiquitous in Björk’s output from Vespertine onwards. Read more

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10 years on: Radiohead – Kid A

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You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millenial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles […] might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be sixteen. […] Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.

When populist scribbler Nick Hornby wrote those words in an article for the October 2000 issue of The New Yorker, he didn’t just fail to hit the nail on the head, he demonstrated he had no idea there was even a nail there. It’s sad that Kid A should have elicited such a superficial, æsthetically decrepit view, but Hornby’s was not a lone voice; assorted critics—and, no doubt, fans too—found themselves discombobulated by this album, and of course, anger and rejection so easily follow from incomprehension in simpler minds. However, in mentioning a teenage aspect, Hornby, without meaning to, actually got something right: Kid A, released 10 years ago this week, is Radiohead‘s “puberty album”, marking their musical transition from adolescence to adulthood. Hornby’s response is no different from the all-too-common parental reaction to this process, characterised by degrees of irritation and fury at how much their loved one has changed. In fact, “changed” doesn’t quite cover it; Radiohead’s remarkable progression from OK Computer, three years earlier, brings to mind the exclamation of shock from Bottom’s companion’s in Act III of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “bless thee! thou art translated!” Read more

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25 years on: a-ha – Take On Me

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of, in my view, one of the finest pop songs ever recorded: “Take On Me” by a-ha. It could be argued that the release of “Take On Me” marked a turning point for pop, which had spent the preceding years mooching around in New Romantic guise when it wasn’t posturing in Soft Rock or shuffling around with the Goths. To some extent following OMD’s lead, a-ha pretty much defined synthpop in this breathtaking song, although it took them three attempts to do it. Let’s go back to the beginning.

The song first began to take shape as early as 1982, when a-ha barely existed, the trio shacked up in a cabin in their native Norway, putting together a series of demos. Back then it was called “Lesson One”, and while the band used obviously cheap and cheerful synths and drum machines, the basic elements of the final song were already firmly in place, most notably the recurring synth riff as well as much of the main melody. Structurally though, it’s all over the place, sounding like three different songs awkwardly stitched together, not one of them possessing a chorus to speak of. It therefore comes across as rather odd, excruciatingly so when Morten Harket inexplicably lets loose a bizarre, horrifying whoop a little way in (0:41 – a moment he’d probably like to forget).

A year later, now calling themselves a-ha, the group spent several months recording demos in London, at a small studio called Rendezvous. It was here that “Take On Me” properly took its final form, bearing little resemblance to the miserable demo from 1982; all the basic elements—lyrics, structure, melody and harmonies—are the same at this stage as in the final version. Nonetheless, it’s clearly still a work in progress; Harket’s singing is still too waivering for its own good, despite the remarkable demonstration of his vocal range, as heard in the chorus, no less than two-and-a-half octaves. The impressive chorus goes some way to contrast with the verses, but there’s still a dynamic flatness that stops the song being terribly inviting, something the all-too-plain instrumental simply can’t solve on its own. Read more

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Mixtape #17 : Lay the Voice to Rest, Dear Mist (In Memoriam Danielle Baquet-Long)

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How quickly a year passes. On this day, 12 months ago, Danielle Baquet-Long died, bringing to an abrupt end the remarkable musical project that she and husband Will had crafted together for several years. Of course, music, like life, goes on regardless, and the prospect of plenty more releases yet to come from both Celer and Chubby Wolf (Dani’s solo project) continues to be an exciting one.

To mark today’s sad anniversary, the new 5:4 mixtape is in Dani’s memory, bringing together a diverse selection of music that broadly falls into the ‘ambient drone’ category. Drone has entranced me since i was pretty young; in the right hands, it has a quality that always seems familiar, yet somehow achingly inscrutable and difficult to define; close and intimate, yet also impossibly distant. But this kind of music (and certainly on an occasion such as this) is perhaps best not written about in too much detail; suffice it to say the examples here range from vast, dazzling textures that seemingly envelop everything in sight to gentle half-heard whispers. Of course, Dani’s own music is included, the final (very brief) example of which gives the mixtape its name.

In total, two and a half hours of music to commemorate the life of one of ambient’s more insightful and imaginative figures. The complete playlist is as follows: Read more

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Einojuhani Rautavaara – Vigilia

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On this day in 1928, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was born, and to commemorate the occasion, here is a performance of his 1971 work, Vigilia. A complete setting of the Orthodox liturgies of Vespers and Matins, it was broadcast in an edition of Choirworks on Radio 3 in 2001, performed by the BBC Singers directed by Stephen Layton. Layton is a keen advocate of contemporary choral music, particularly in his capacity as director of the vocal group Polyphony.

According to Christian tradition, a vigil commences in the (usually late) evening, with the liturgy of Vespers (the monastic evening prayer service), concluding at daybreak with Matins (morning prayer); Rautavaara’s work is therefore divided into two broad parts, pertaining to these two liturgies. A lengthy Orthodox liturgy sung in Finnish might seem a bit daunting, but Rautavaara’s setting is an accessible one, striking a curious but engaging balance between the stringent demands of Orthodox music and the ingenuity of modern composition. Read more

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25 years on: Propaganda – Dr. Mabuse and Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of two of the most striking songs of the 1980s—as well as being, in my opinion, among the best songs of all time.

The first is “Dr. Mabuse” by German synthpop outfit Propaganda, inspired by the character made famous by Fritz Lang. Released to a modicum of chart success in March 1984 (it reached No. 27 in the UK chart the following month), my first contact with the song was a few months later, on the compilation album Now That’s What I Call Music 3. Propaganda spent much of their time in the shadow of mightier acts; they hailed from Dusseldorf, home to none other than Kraftwerk, and during their time on the renowned ZTT label—formed out of the perfect collision of Paul Morley and Trevor Horn—continuously played second fiddle to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax”, released a couple of months earlier, had taken the label into the stratosphere of success (aided in no small part by the BBC’s laughable “ban”). This, together with their particularly European (i.e. non-British) sound—crowned by Claudia Brücken’s sharply accented vocals—meant that Propaganda’s popularity in the UK never lived up to their merits. Not that they were the most imaginative band in the world; they certainly weren’t, but “Dr. Mabuse” is an outstanding song, surpassing everything they did after, and outclassing most other songs that year. A feature of the ZTT label—rarely an advantageous or helpful one—was that remixes of songs released as singles were made in abundance. Furthermore, the same version often ended up with a plethora of subtly different titles and accompanying verbiage, which may have been something to do with releases in different territories or even the label losing the plot (clearly the case on some occasions), but was most likely the influence of Paul Morley, someone not exactly known for restraint where words are concerned. “Dr. Mabuse” is no stranger to this melée of remixes and names, but thankfully not to the same extent as Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the number of versions is relatively low. Read more

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