CD/Digital releases

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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January 2017 listenings

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i remarked in passing recently about the disparity between music i’ve listened to and music i’ve (not) written about, so as an adjunct to my reviews of new releases, i’m going to offer a brief monthly insight into some of the more interesting and/or noteworthy things to have entered my ears. Belatedly, here’s January’s:

Ari Mason – Creatures

i’m totally new to Ari Mason’s music, but stumbled across her 2015 single ‘Dim the Lights’ at the start of the year, which in turn led to me exploring Creatures, her first album. ‘Dim the Lights’ is included and is easily one of the album’s highlights, a really catchy song that i return to unhealthily often, with a half-speed chorus that’s a lovely touch, undermining the song’s sense of pace (the song is available as a free download on a three-track EP). Mason’s voice has a deliciously deep register and a smoky timbre, which in this light synthpop context makes for a beautifully effective combination, shot through with trace elements of melancholy. i wish i’d encountered Creatures sooner; it would definitely have appeared on my best of 2016 list. [Bandcamp]

Rose Elinor Dougall – Stellular

It’s slightly disgraceful that i’ve never yet written about Dougall’s output on 5:4, as i’ve been a fan ever since she did the right thing and went solo many, many years ago. Suffice it to say i have everything she’s released to date, which perhaps says something. It’s been a long wait for Stellular (her first album, Without Why, came out in 2010) but well worth it. Standout songs are ‘Strange Warnings’ and ‘Stellular’, but the whole album is a real treat, blending tip-of-the-tongue hints of something retro with an irresistably fresh pop outlook. If this whets your appetite, i highly recommend her 2013 EP Future Vanishes (which features a nice earlier version of ‘Strange Warnings’), the title track of which is one of the best pop songs i’ve heard in absolutely years. [Amazon]

Köhnen Pandí Duo – Darkness Comes In Two’s

Simply amazing; review here.

The Thing With Five Eyes – KOSMOS

Linked to the above release due to the leadership of Jason Köhnen, this is another iteration of what was once The Kilimajaro Darkjazz Ensemble and The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Also titled in Persian (كون), KOSMOS includes all four tracks from the group’s separately available EP نور, along with loads of unreleased pieces, forming a stunning one-hour tapestry of post-apocalyptic jazz elements flecked and frazzled with beautiful, brute force electronics. [Bandcamp]

Cristobal Tapia De Veer – The Girl With All The Gifts (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of last year’s best movies – and one of the most intelligent films to explore, admittedly obliquely (and with a twist), the otherwise tired zombie apocalypse trope – gets an equally admirable soundtrack courtesy of Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer. Gentle yet eerie, tender but menacing, it has refreshingly little to do with conventional movie scores, opting instead to surround and nourish the film’s narrative with a score that evokes, alludes and hints, often from a distance, rather than trying to spoon-feed or manipulate at point-blank range. [Bandcamp]

One other brief thought: i was listening quite a bit to Mica Levi‘s score for Jackie last month, and it’s baffling that it should have received the attention it has, including an Academy Award nomination, considering how inferior it is to the music she composed for Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing film Under the Skin a few years ago. She’s clearly an interesting composer – i’ve written about her on several occasions – but much of the attention her music for Jackie has received – particularly from film critic Mark Kermode, who has bizarrely convinced himself it’s of major importance – is sheer hyperbole. To be clear: the score to Jackie is careful, nuanced and at times wonderfully and appropriately weird (though never as much as in the film’s remarkable, highly-concentrated trailer), but much of it, heard in isolation, is plain atmospheric blah, instantly forgettable, whereas her music for Under the Skin, entirely ignored by the Academy, remains one of the most innovative, chillingly effective approaches to film music of the last ten or twenty years, every moment of it impossible to forget. That score absolutely should have been awarded an Oscar, but not this one. Credit where credit’s due.

 

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Studies vol. 3/Electric Spring

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A couple of electronic music announcements. First, if you’ll forgive the self-pluggery, i’m pleased to announce that the third volume of my ongoing series of Studies is now available. (Many thanks to all of you who have purchased volumes 1 and 2.) The Studies explore my interest in structuring sound materials from an initially visual perspective, an approach i describe as ‘Op music’, a sonic equivalent of Op art. The three studies on Vol. 3 are highly diverse. No. 12 is an exploration of near parallel pitch movement, resulting in shepard tone-like sequences and a shifting, paradoxical sense of stasis and movement. No. 13 examines the juxtaposition of freely-evolving sounds within an imposed metric system, positioning quasi-random clouds of pitch within an grid-like arrangement. Vol. 3 ends with my longest study to date, No. 10. Its 14-minute duration begins with a vast number of tightly packed pitch bands, moving as one; over time, these gradually drift out of alignment, resulting in complex waves and patterns of harmonic distribution and introducing elements of implied melody. The work is complicated further by a central episode, the noise of which permeates this process and threatens to disrupt it from within.

Studies vol. 3 is a digital-only EP, available via Bandcamp. The accompanying artwork has again been created by the marvellous Polish generative artist Tomasz Sulej (folds2d.tumblr.com). All three pieces can be streamed below.

Second, more importantly, Huddersfield University’s annual Electric Spring festival kicks off this Wednesday, running until Sunday. Once again it features a typically diverse collection of composers, many of whom are happily new to me. Alex McLean and Dave Smith will be performing improvisations, Mark Lyken & Emma Dove are presenting their film Mirror Lands, Argentine composer Beatriz Ferreyra (well-known particularly for her work composed as part of Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales) is represented in three electronic works including her brand new 16-channel work Los senderos de luz y sombras, premièred last month in Paris, and Richard Scott will bring the festival to an end with a suite of analogue synth pieces. These concerts are supplemented with opening acts from Tadej DroljcDemelza Kooij & Lars Koens, Geoff Cox & Keith MarleyFrédéric DufeuSolomiya Moroz & Marko Ivic and Elías Merino. Each concert

All are preceded by pre-concert talks, and there’s a keynote talk from filmmaker Andrew Kötting. There are two additional late night concerts on Friday and Saturday nights, and throughout the festival there’s an interactive installation by Stewart Worthy called Speaker Grid situated in the Creative Arts Building’s large atrium. Everything is free – everything – so it’s a fabulous opportunity for some really new sonic experiences. i’ll be there for the duration, and will be reviewing as much as i can. Full details are available on the Electric Spring website, where you can also download the festival programme.

 

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