CD/Digital releases

Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

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This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 2)

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Record label Another Timbre has recently released the five discs that comprise the second part of its Canadian Composers Series, featuring music by Alex Jang, Cassandra Miller, Lance Austin Olsen and Linda Catlin Smith. While the excellent accompanying booklet to the series (which, at over 100 pages, is more a book than a booklet) elaborates on the many points of contact and connection between the composers, it would be misleading and inaccurate to say that the music on these five discs shares fundamental similarities. There’s no hint here of a kind of ‘Canadian Collective’ in the manner of the Wandelweiser posse; it’s impossible to miss the fact that all four composers take an overtly reflective approach, not only to their materials but to the way those materials are wielded, but that’s hardly unique to Canada and in any case the way each composer articulates that act of reflection is entirely individual. Read more

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all that dust: music by Morton Feldman, Matthew Shlomowitz, Séverine Ballon, Milton Babbitt and Luigi Nono

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The launching of a new label devoted to contemporary music is something to celebrate, and the newest kid on the block is all that dust, the brainchild of composer Newton Armstrong, soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. The label’s first five releases have recently appeared, and there are a couple of things to say more generally before getting stuck into them individually. First, all that dust is a label not only concerned with the newest of the new; two of these releases are works composed in 1964, and another dates from the early ’80s. Second, all that dust is interested in digital as a valuable medium in its own right: two of the releases are only available digitally, and have been specifically engineered for binaural listening. Third, the label’s approach to presentation is slick but nicely generic, opting for abstract artwork rather than tailoring each one with something personalised. This somewhat extends to the liner notes, which while they do at least provide some context for the music are generally rather meagre and perfunctory. Overall, though, in terms of presentation what all that dust are clearly seeking to emphasise above all else is the music, indicating that we shouldn’t fuss about admiring fancy covers or reading lengthy tracts but just launch as quickly as possible into these five very different soundworlds. Hard to argue with that. Read more

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Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Erkki-Sven Tüür – Illuminatio/Whistle and Whispers from Uluru/Symphony No. 8, Arvo Pärt & Alfred Schnittke – Choral Works, Arvo Pärt – The Symphonies

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Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. Read more

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Gráinne Mulvey/Christopher Fox – Aeolus/untouch, John Wiggins – The Listened To Sound, Lee Fraser – Cor Unvers

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A new EP out on the Metier label brings together two works that each exist in an interesting relationship to real sounds. Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey‘s Aeolus, as the title suggests, takes its inspiration from the eponymous king of the island of Aeolia, names better known to us today via the Aeolian harp and its associated mode. Her piece is an acousmatic exploration of material rooted quite obviously in field recordings, though subjected to considerable amounts of processing and sculpting. Throughout, there’s a strong sense that the work is, if not about, then deeply informed by the idea of sound as the result of wind and air friction. The piece begins with, and from time to time returns to, the ambiance of the open air, to the soft accompaniment of birdsong, and Mulvey’s subsequent treatment of sounds transforms them into sheets of shimmer, or as if being propelled through tubes or tunnels, or even heard only by their reverberation, making identification difficult. There’s a lovely intimate tactility in this, made more fascinating by the hands-off nature of these transformed sounds, seemingly all the product of no direct physical contact. At various points there are distinct aural similarities to The Hafler Trio (particularly Intoutof), but for the most part Mulvey avoids the clichés of acousmatic music, producing something far more abstract, yet in which its points of origin remain (just about) tangible.

The other work on the disc, Christopher Fox‘s untouch, is the first of a two-part work (untouch—touch) for solo percussion. While the second part involves the soloist striking Thai gongs, untouch reconfigures their actions to the triggering of sine tones. There’s something genuinely uncanny about this abstraction (surely enhanced by seeing it in performance) both in the nature of the tone’s timbre – which doesn’t bear any meaningful similarity to gongs yet knowing about the second part continually brings them to mind – as well as their unfolding over time, begging the question of whether their continuity and the patterns that briefly emerge are arbitrary or closely-controlled. An intriguing, unconventional pair of works. Read more

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Beyond Pythagoras, Phantom Images

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Perhaps the most consistently and fearlessly challenging of UK new music labels is Huddersfield Contemporary Records. As such, they’re not exactly a label needing to up their game, but with their latest couple of albums they’ve done just that, releasing some of the most unforgettable stuff i’ve heard this year. Before discussing Beyond Pythagoras and Phantom Images it’s worth mentioning that, in keeping with the exploratory compositional curiosity that prevails at Huddersfield University, the first impression these discs make is as research publications, the product of intense academic consideration and scrutiny. i only mention this because, first, very few labels seek to place up-front the scholarly, investigative aspects of the music; second, this is not (as a listener) anything to be afraid of; and third, that’s far from being the whole story. Personally, i like being able to engage with the academic side of this kind of music-making. It highlights the experimentalism that underpins most innovation, as well as the provisional nature of such experiments; this, in turn, punctures the bubble – continually re-inflated with perfumed, romantic helium – that composition is all about divine inspiration and magic. Composition, at its best, is about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, about feeling the ‘earth’ of the musical stuff between your fingers and finding how it wants and you want it to be shaped; it’s about hunches and algorithms and wild guesses and systems and why-the-hell-nots and struggles and elation, with concomitant failures and triumphs. Maybe all i’m trying to say in this now way overlong opening paragraph is that Huddersfield Contemporary Records really gets this, and these two discs are a superbly authentic testament to the rigour and the glee that the best compositions encompass and embody. Read more

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