CD/Digital releases

New releases: Miguel Angel Tolosa, Giulio Aldinucci & Francis M. Gri

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Ephimeral is a recent release of electronic music by Spanish composer and sound artist Miguel Angel Tolosa. Tolosa first got my attention in 2015 with Loner, his superb collaboration with Ingar Zach (which ended up on my Best Albums of 2015) and this disc has got me just as excited. That title, though i’m unsure whether the spelling is implying something specific, hints at the fact that half of the ten pieces on the disc are very short, barely clocking two minutes’ duration. Some are a bit too ephemeral for their own good, but this is due simply to the fact that what Tolosa is doing feels too interesting to be curtailed like this. ‘Musgo’ (Moss) and ‘Allá lejos’ (Far away) are cases in point, the former an intense, dense noise-based texture within which clear bands are detectable as well as different behavioural elements – some rumbly, some granular – with a clear sense of restraint shown in the lower frequencies, while the latter is characterised by a glitched, regular pulsing in the midst of a throbby floating texture. ‘Tropismos’ (Tropisms) and ‘Pálida y móvil, sombra’ (Light and mobile, shadow) are even shorter, together lasting less than three minutes, but they go even further in presenting assertive ideas that are instantly engaging. Keeping these four pieces as brief as this is clearly Tolosa’s point, so one must be content to relish and revisit their fleeting moments; in ‘Pálida y móvil, sombra’ (which lasts 72 seconds), Tolosa is even sufficiently courageous to allow a substantial portion of silence to intrude. There’s truly something marvellous and mysterious going on in these miniatures.

What makes their brevity uncomfortable is because Tolosa’s soundscapes feel instinctively meditative. They’re not really ‘ambient’ in the familiar sense of that word – they’re too consistently interesting for that – but their immersive qualities are considerable. This is music to bathe in. Read more

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New releases: John Wall & Mark Durgan, John Edwards/Mark Sanders/John Wall

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know how fascinated i am by the music of John Wall, and the last couple of months have seen two new releases featuring Wall alongside some his most long-standing collaborators.

In collusion with Mark Durgan is Contrapt, a 39-minute sequence of pieces culled from free improvisations the duo made over a three-year period, from 2012 to 2015. In Wall’s case, ‘culled’ would seem to be precisely the right word. i’ll say more about this when discussing the other disc, but the fact that three years’ worth of improvisations can be distilled down into not much more than half an hour says something to the way in which Wall approaches the editing process (in all of Wall’s collaborations, he is responsible for the editing of the material).

There are instances, particularly in Wall’s more recent output, when the different tracks on a disc can feel disconnected from one another, like separately-filmed scenes placed side-by-side to form a movie demarcated by jump-cuts. But not on Contrapt. Here, the seven tracks become segments of a larger, integral whole, cross-referential both specifically (in terms of material) and generally (behaviour and timbral palette). One of the most striking qualities displayed throughout the disc is one of physicality. Electronic music so often sounds like what it is – a stream of 0s and 1s that, whatever their lineage may be, reside within and emerge from the processing circuits of a computer. But throughout Contrapt there’s a vivid sense of objects (whether real or virtual) being wielded, handled, struck and otherwise manipulated, sometimes shape-shifting into tubular noise formations, substituting impacts with turbulence. As ever, the relationship between pitch and noise is a fascinating one. It’s easy to focus on the fragmented, filigree surfaces, or get swept along on the torrential streams of burbling grit and glitter (which i’ve previously likened to ‘alien data’) but within and around them broader sonic events take place. Underlaid low tones appear in the eponymous first segment, distant and ephemeral but present nonetheless, whereas in ‘Rapt’ pitch is used more overtly, forming lovely gliding tones that spiral spontaneously out from the main texture before being absorbed back into it. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: New Estonian Choral Music, Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies, Galina Grigorjeva – Nature Morte

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To bring this first Estonia in Focus weekend to a close, some excellent CDs of Estonian contemporary choral music have been released in the last few months. Together they admirably demonstrate the considerable range and richness of compositional thought typical of the country’s new music scene. For a broad but in-depth overview of this scene, there’s a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre, the primary and superbly supportive outlet for the country’s musical output (at present, the disc only appears to be available directly from there). It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years.

Folksong, whether clearly invoked or implied, is an influence in several of the pieces. Most obviously in Kristo Matson‘s Three Estonian Folk Songs, a strangely-structured work – the middle ‘song’ is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it hardly counts – and perhaps a little too simplistic for its own good, but with some pretty moments, particularly in the opening song. Piret Rips-Laul‘s Paradisi Gloria is similarly simple, and regarding the album as a whole feels like the odd one out, more redolent of the sugary choral styles so prevalent in the US, tapping into a harmonic world not unlike Morten Lauridsen’s but without the scrunchy diatonics. Also with a folk sensibility, but greater invention and beauty, is Maria Kõrvits‘ work for female choir Haned-luiged (Geese-Swans), essentially homophonic but here and there enriched with sustained chords behind, while Mariliis Valkonen‘s Usalduse jõgi (River of Trust) widens the scope of such simplicity, combining relatively rigid underpinning (via drones) with a mixture of unified declamation and bursts of more textural music. Many of the works on this disc have love as a central theme. In Near by Evelin Seppar, setting texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s implicit rather than stated (Seppar’s partner conducts the choir for whom it was written), though the work’s strong upward movements that coalesce around the phrase “mystic shape”, and the overwhelmingly passionate outpouring heard later, answered by a soft, heartfelt conclusion, make the subtext abundantly clear. Born in 1958, Toivo Tulev is the elder statesman here, and not simply in terms of age: Tulev has acted in the role of composition teacher for four of the other featured composers. Though the two movements from his 2007 vocal cycle Sonnets are unfortunately marred by an imperfect recording (afflicted with a low hum), the stirring melancholy that Tulev wrings from Dante’s La vita nuova is crystal clear. First the choir laments and consoles itself as a kind of close-knit support group, before turning outwards in a more emotionally raw episode that benefits from sounding intuitive, the contrast between loud, high outbursts and sustained softer passages making this arguably the most direct music on the disc. Read more

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New (Nordic) releases: Vilae&Inga, Nordic Affect, Trio Aristos, Iceland Symphony Orchestra

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There’s been a number of very interesting new releases recently featuring composers and performers from the Nordic countries. At the most unconventional end of the spectrum are violinist Vilde Sandve Alnæs and double bassist Inga Margrete Aas, a Norwegian duo who perform free-improvised music together as Vilde&Inga. Their new album Silfr, released last month on the experimental Sofa label, features ten pieces that demonstrate the fascinating way the duo utilises their instruments to explore a single idea. This in itself is quite refreshing. So much contemporary music seeks to cram shedloads of invention into even relatively short works that to hear such a single-minded approach as that on Silfr is somewhat novel, even courageous. The most extreme pieces are so unwavering as to seem almost behaviourally solipsistic. ‘Røykkvarts’ (“smoky quartz”) comprises an essentially unpitched texture of assorted scratchings and scrapings – so anonymous it’s hard to tell it’s being executed on string instruments at all – with occasional pizzicato pitches allowed to resonate. Though ostensibly more rapid, ‘Sprø Glimmer’ (“crazy glimmer”) is similar, placing high, unstoppable, glistening arpeggiations against an only slightly less intense tremolando, riddled with overtones, while ‘Aurum’ is located in weak, bleak territory, the instruments barely able to speak to the point that the background ambience becomes a distinct presence in its own right. The title piece is the most immersive of these, setting up a moto perpetuo of tremolandi and ricochets, stretching out notes at various points until the whole thing has its pitch content erased towards the end, culminating in the noise of frantic physical movements. Fantastic. Read more

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Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 1)

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Among the most interesting releases to have come out in the opening months of this year are the first five discs in Another Timbre‘s Canadian Composers Series. It’s an ambitious project that seeks to provide an overview of, if not the entirety of contemporary Canadian compositional thought (which is hugely diverse), then at least some of its more contemplative protagonists. The five composers featured on these discs – Martin ArnoldIsaiah CeccarelliMarc SabatLinda Catlin Smith and Chiyoko Szlavnics – in some respects have a great deal in common, though it would be pushing it to think of them as musically ‘related’. If anything can be said to typify them all, in addition to the contemplative aspect i mentioned, it’s a certain type of intensity that, whether preoccupied with carefully-managed processes or a more free-form arrangement of materials, seems utterly focused to the exclusion of all else. These are composers who gaze fixedly at their ideas in a way that makes a very deep impression and in its own way leads to a distinct kind of quiet provocation. Read more

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February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 3. Piano music

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It’s only a few days until Michael Finnissy‘s 70th birthday year comes to an end, so in the nick of time, here’s the final part of my retrospective of his music released by his most loyal label, Metier. In turning to the piano music, i’m conscious that, to some extent, i’m setting myself up for failure. The piano is of such massive, fundamental significance to Finnissy – his website lists 172 works for the instrument, more than half his entire output – that to engage with this music meaningfully would require many more thousands of words than i can devote to them on this occasion. By my own admission, then, never will a surface have been so barely scratched. But it doesn’t take much more than a scratch to start uncovering a wealth of inspirations – musical, philosophical, political, sexual, ideological, technical – teeming within these works to an extent that, even for Finnissy, is startlingly extensive. There is, initially at least, something overwhelmingly daunting about this, yet it would be a mistake to regard Finnissy’s piano output as so many multi-faceted puzzles that can only be ‘got’ once all of their extrinsic influences have been grasped, parsed and assimilated. Nothing, i would venture, could be further from the truth: without wishing to put words into the composer’s mouth, i have little doubt that the notion of his music as some kind of ‘test’ would be completely anathema to Finnissy. Besides, all of them – without fail – communicate themselves with an immediacy and power that sets them apart both within his own output as well as from the majority of 20th and 21st century piano-writing. They can be enjoyed at surface level and also in the rich, subterranean layers of inspiration that lie beneath. To me, Finnissy’s piano music seems not unlike a kind of archaeological artefact: the more one goes digging, the more unexpected delights are to be discovered.

Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace. Read more

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