With the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival poised to kick off tomorrow, i’m focussing this new releases roundup on Jürg Frey, composer-in-residence at HCMF 2015, and composers associated with the Wandelweiser—would ‘group’ be the right word? ‘collective’? ‘concept’? ‘conceit’? Just the other day, an esteemed colleague described Wandelweiser to me as a ‘cult’; whatever it is, it seems to have a polarising effect on listeners. My own opinion has, hitherto, been insufficiently thought-through even to qualify as an opinion; i enjoyed Antoine Beuger’s four-hour en una noche oscura, performed at HCMF 2013, very much indeed, but until recently it’s been a lone deep impact among many slight, glancing impressions. Read more
i want to flag up a few more new releases that have recently been tickling my jukeboxical fancy. To begin with, music that’s not remotely contemporary, but which in its own way marks an important contribution to the development of a particular musical strand that began early in the 20th century. Gottfried Huppertz was the composer for two of Fritz Lang’s most impressive films; his 1927 score for Metropolis can be heard as a progenitor of the style and approach that is at the heart of composers like John Williams. But it’s his score for Lang’s massive 4½-hour two-part epic Die Nibelungen, composed three years earlier, that can be heard to contain the quintessence of the movie soundtrack in a startlingly nascent form. In contrast to Metropolis, where mechanistic machinations dominate its narrative, Die Nibelungen is a score rooted deeply in lyrical melodic action. Huppertz’s musical language is sumptuous, echoing the shifting harmonic sensibilities of Richard Strauss, but above all strikingly redolent of the impassioned melodies (and instrumentation) of Scriabin’s symphonies. His approach is essentially leitmotivic, establishing a variety of principal ideas that are continually repositioned and recast in different lights and flavours in response to the events on-screen.
Interesting things are afoot for those with a penchant for the indeterminate. Composer Kenneth Kirschner has teamed up with digital visual artist Joshue Ott to create a trio of audiovisual apps, under the umbrella title Variant, that enable one to explore in different ways indeterminate music and visuals in a stimulating and strikingly beautiful way. In terms of the nature of its user interaction, Variant bears a resemblance to Brian Eno & Peter Chivers’ suite of generative music apps, but that’s where the similarities end: Kirschner’s music doesn’t seek to establish a kind of saccharine stupor, and Ott’s visuals don’t resemble something manufactured by Fisher-Price.
Kirschner has for a long time been interested in indeterminacy, both in terms of the act of composition itself (often involving chance procedures) as well as the way events take place over time. It permeates much of his output, but the seed for Variant can perhaps be located most specifically in the collection of pieces Kirschner composed from 2004-5, which, unlike the rest of his output, comprised not a standalone recording but instead a collection of sound fragments ‘performed’ via a web browser, and which would play continuously, different on each occasion, until stopped by the listener. (A detailed examination of these pieces can be found in my essay ‘Determined/Indeterminate’ in the free ebook Imperfect Forms, published by Tokafi.) These indeterminate pieces used a very simple set of rules to determine basic things like superimposing layers of sound on top of each other, but the process was otherwise essentially random.
i’ve been kind of drowning in fascinating new releases lately, so i’m going to try and give something of a whistle-stop tour through some of the best. Beginning with a couple from the always wonderful Empreintes DIGITALes label. Canadian composer Gilles Gobeil is represented by Les lointains, featuring six substantial pieces created between 2008 and 2013. Gobeil’s particular take on acousmatics is extremely heavily inflected with sharp attacks redolent of industrial machinery. Big impacts litter his music, acting both as material element and structural marker; as such they become antagonistic pivot points about which each piece spasmodically turns and contorts. One ends up feeling rather small listening to these pieces, but not just due to their blunt force trauma; Gobeil also punctuates his music with periods of repose that are more void-like and ambient (albeit edgy), broad but delicate vistas that seemingly stretch into infinity, gradually becoming filled with raw material for the next episode of onslaught. The scale, the force, the immensity, the drama—it all adds up to a sequence of experiences that go beyond simply being immersive; one feels enveloped by these six pieces, surrounded on all sides by danger and beauty of utmost intensity.
Not many new releases have made much of an impact on me during the last month. Among the few that have, though, is a new box set from Wergo bringing together all ten of Hans Werner Henze‘s symphonies, performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. Henze’s symphonies were an early interest of mine; as a teenager i became closely acquainted with the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the first six symphonies made by Henze himself with the Berlin Phil. i say ‘acquainted’, but at the time i was semi-mystified by various aspects of these pieces, and i’m not sure that the passing years or Janowski’s superb new rendition of them has made that mystification any less present. Which is not to say these symphonies are baffling or unengaging—not in the least—yet Henze’s mode of speech takes more than a little getting used to, and his inclination to veer between extremes can be decidedly disorienting. Those first six symphonies remain a challenge, and to no little extent they are ‘symphonies’ only in name, inclining more towards the heightened drama of music theatre. This, in fact, is a characteristic of all 10 symphonies, which is in turn one of the main facets that prevents them from sounding problematically abstruse; their swift adjustments and shifts between states—of behaviour, atmosphere, emotion, charge—is exhilarating and continually offers new ways into the often churning underlying mood. Read more
My round-up of the most interesting new releases this time features three objects: a film, a box and a book, each desirable for very different reasons. The film, available from Dacapo Records, is a much-to-be-celebrated DVD release of Simon Steen-Andersen‘s bewilderingly marvellous work Black Box Music. The memory of my first encounter with the piece at HCMF 2012 is still very vivid, and that’s entirely due to the skilful blend of wit and virtuosity that is encapsulated both within and without the box. It’s true that Steen-Andersen’s work doesn’t always hit home as successfully as this, but that criticism seems almost churlish when confronted by the frankly amazing breadth of his imagination. In Black Box Music, a solo performer directs and interacts with two spatially separated groups of instrumentalists; these directions and interactions come via a camera feed from inside the titular box, filming the soloist’s hands. Cast in three movements, it progresses from a kind of ‘warming up’ to a dazzling display of apparent cause and effect, the soloist’s gestures seemingly eliciting certain types of material and behaviour from the players; but there are times when this becomes subverted, suggesting the relationship is rather more complex than seemed at first. Read more
If there’s one thing that many of the more interesting new releases i’ve heard have in common, it’s doing new and unusual things with conventional sounds, objects and forms. To this end, the most impressive disc of orchestral music I’ve encountered recently is Mark Andre‘s … auf … (Wergo). There’s actually something rather brazen about the piece, Andre rooting it in what is essentially a language of gesture. There aren’t many of them either: huge tutti accents, loud crescendo chords, gentle sustained pitches and extremely soft percussive textures comprise pretty much everything that we hear. Andre makes them the poles of an intense drama played out (in three pieces, both independent and parts of a trilogy) for over an hour, yet which never for a moment seems to tread water. Which isn’t to suggest that it’s relentless; on the contrary, a great deal of the tension arises from protracted periods of semi-stasis; for some composers these would be times of repose, but in … auf … the orchestra feels poised; energy and activity are implicit everywhere. Furthermore, the accents—which, due both to the actual dynamic but also to their contextual contrast, are on occasions exceptionally loud (the hammer blows of Mahler 6 meet the opening of Mahler 1)—do nothing whatsoever to dispel or release this pent-up energy, if anything injecting still more, acts of blunt force provocation like a boxer hitting their own face before a fight. Andre moves back and forth between these gestural poles in a way that sounds inherently chaotic yet—Takemitsu-like—each step forward is entirely convincing.