Judging by the majority of CDs that have been sent to me recently, contemporary music is seeing a surge in recordings of works highlighting solo instruments. The collection i have received occupies different regions of the avant garde, from the most familiar & accessible to its forbidding outer fringes. Somewhere in between, yet the most impenetrable of them all, is James Erber‘s ‘Traces’ cycle for solo flute, released by Convivium Records. Erber has long struck me as a kind of non-mainstream Alexander Goehr, in that his music is always rigorously argued, its logic unassailable (a point Erber has always hammered home via his voluble essays & programme notes), yet never really opening itself up to allow the listener in. In short, its intellectual prowess crowds out its emotional potential, & in this respect the ‘Traces’ cycle is no different. There’s greatest interest to be found in the first of the three movements, where a low, increasingly rhythmic element makes incursions into the music’s ongoing melodic thrust (involving some nice fluttertongue writing &, after its fraught high point, some enigmatic ruminative finger tapping). But the second & third movements ramp up the intensity such that it becomes relentless, demonstrating an unstoppable, determined conviction that ends up nullifying both the effect & the interest. A curious extended stasis towards the end, involving soft high notes, is a welcome break, but the piece is no less inscrutable for it. In many ways, the trio of smaller works on the disc make a much stronger impact, but strongest of all is flautist Matteo Cesari‘s playing; it may be hard to decode Erber’s code, but Cesari does at least ensure its intricacies are presented with utmost clarity.
Many’s the time i decide to write about a composer, group or artist & find it almost unconscionable that i haven’t done so already. That’s overwhelmingly the case with Man Without Country, a duo from south Wales whose unique brand of dreamy electronic pop has been doing the rounds for a little over two years. Indeed, it’s tempting to begin with an apology for not featuring them sooner. Still, definitely better late than never.
If you were to combine the heartfelt melancholy of Keane, the aloof, breathy detachment of Pet Shop Boys, the late-night wistfulness of Go West & the viscous, transcendent haze of M83, you’d begin to approximate the essence of Man Without Country’s music. Choosing their name, they say, as it “carries an instant intrigue […] it derives from ‘a sense of not belonging’ “, Tomas Greenhalf & Ryan James hit the ground running two summers ago with their first EP, King Complex. Both in its entirety & in just the title track (which remains one of their best) can be heard the duo’s predilection for a mode of expression that employs both the gentlest of soft edges as well as timbres & textures that cut like razor wire. It’s a dichotomy that works because it must, being the means to what is ultimately a very emotional end, declared with unflinching honesty in their lyrics. Read more
It’s some time since i’ve explored movie soundtracks on 5:4, but there have been three this year that have stood out from the crowd, all very far indeed from the conventions of cinematic swooshery. That in itself isn’t terribly surprising, as their respective films are, to differing degrees, at some remove from the generic Hollywood archetype. The first is from Franck Khalfoun’s striking remake of Maniac, the music being by French composer Rob (about whom i’ve been able to learn precisely nothing, although there’s an interview here). The film, featuring an astonishing performance from Elijah Wood as the titular antagonist (Wood is clearly at his best playing sick, depraved characters), is dark, claustrophobic, deeply unsettling & at times horribly unpleasant. Almost all of the action takes place at night—in downtown streets, car parks, subway stations, diners & bedrooms—resulting in a heavy emphasis on artificial light, both the garish glare of neon & the subdued ambiance of intimacy. Rob has responded to this with a wonderfully-judged electronic score, one that draws on the crude swagger of 70s & 80s synths, establishing a strong connection to cinema from that period, particularly the self-scored movies of John Carpenter. It’s not pastiche, though; Rob’s sources may be vintage, but his attention is in the present. Opening track ‘Doll’ serves to establish credentials & context; driven by an initially unclear pulse, its restraint & neutrality evokes the sense not just of a late night drive, but of a search, a hunt. Read more
My favourite album of 2012, Kreng’s epic Works for Abattoir Fermé 2007–2011, dove into the deepest depths of doom-laden, gothic, dark ambient. It’s not going to find an equal any time soon, but there have been two albums this year that have come particularly close. The first is by Paul Jebanasam, a composer born in Sri Lanka & now based in Bristol. Jebanasam’s debut album Rites is like a five-part liturgy to an unknown god or force. It opens relatively accessibly, founded upon a rotating chord sequence, brooding, flecked with grime, clipped at its edges. But it floats into a cavernous space filled with ominous, resonant bangs, whereupon it becomes less mobile but also much more complex. Noise develops into a stronger presence, the music building very slowly, ordered by increasingly heavyweight pulses, both in the form of punching metal & jets of steam.
New & not-so-new CD & digital releases have had pretty short shrift on 5:4 this year, which might suggest not much has been making an impression. Not only is that wrong, it’s almost ludicrously so in the case of the most recent CD in Wergo’s ongoing ‘edition musikFabrik’ series. i’ve commented many times before on how more interesting composers are concomitantly harder to find represented on disc, & that’s especially true of Australian Liza Lim. When i first became acquainted with Lim’s music—17 years ago, in the heady, below-stairs performance space at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre—it was entirely impossible, & little has changed since then, aside from a CD on the hat[now]ART label & a smattering of works on several of the excellent discs put out by Huddersfield University on their label. Wergo have therefore done listeners a great service in making available one of Lim’s more recent & substantial works, Tongue of the Invisible. Read more
A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs & a pair of instrumental works, focussing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells & Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.
The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute & piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back & forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—& soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano & string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling & bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, & he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest & at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back & forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ & ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue.
Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests & skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.
Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, & there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings & meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, & the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity & arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced & boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control & consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings.