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.
It’s a while since i’ve had a chance to survey new releases, so there’s quite a few that are overdue being highlighted. Some of them appeared on my recent Best Albums of the Year list, such as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Aerality, out on Deutsche Grammophon. As i’ve mentioned in my previous articles about Þorvaldsdóttir’s work, her overtly elemental music thrives in establishing environments where elements of certainty are both undermined and consolidated. Orchestral work Aerality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths & fifths, which are repeatedly overrun and infiltrated by tendrils of material, leading to fascinating passages of grey, almost blank obfuscation (a Þorvaldsdóttir fingerprint). Much of her work explores this friction between clarity and obscurity, variously weighted, and most of the works heard here begin shrouded in abstraction. But what’s so very refreshing about this is the absence of clichéd value associations: clarity here is no more positive a thing than its opposite. The interest, and it is considerable, lies in the juxtapositions and steady evolutions between states, a connotative mirror—if one wishes to see it as such—of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic heritage but just as much a liberated celebration of the primordial plasticity of sound. Read more
Among the crop of more interesting recent releases is a reissue of Messiaen‘s complete organ works that is easily the most affordable currently available. Treasure Island Music has brought together the famous recordings made by Jennifer Bate in the late 1970s/early 1980s—originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis—in a 6-CD slimline box set costing around £20, which for 7½ hours of music is an exceptional deal. But it’s not just about economy, these performances were extensively shaped by Messiaen himself, Bate working in close collaboration with him during the recording process. Two of the discs were even recorded at La Trinité in Paris, on the very organ where the works were first composed (and, in many cases, premièred), the remaining discs recorded at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. But it’s not just about having the composer’s imprimatur either; Bate’s renditions of these complex works are navigated with stunning clarity—never is it apparent that these recordings are several decades old—and her fidelity to the scores is in many ways greater than that of Messiaen’s own recordings. Read more
The majority of new releases to have come my way recently have featured music for ensemble and/or orchestral forces, each disc of which is usually devoted to the work of a single composer. The opportunity to scrutinise an individual’s work in great depth at times turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. This is definitely the case with NMC’s recent disc of Helen Grime‘s music, Night Songs. i’ve enjoyed and written about Grime’s work on a number of occasions, but this album—which, helpfully, arranges its contents in chronological order—contextualises those works such that rather glaring problems instantly emerge. Chief of them all is the extreme narrowness of Grime’s compositional language, with regular recourse to precisely the same mannerisms and tropes in pretty much every piece. Take a drawn-out melodic line, put it mid-register and not too loud, adorn it with sharp staccato notes (woodwind or pizzicato strings) and far, far beneath it have grumbling deep bass phrases. This kind of thing has worked for Oliver Knussen, and on the basis of this disc, Grime seems to feel compelled to introduce this same device into everything she writes. It’s an irritation that gets compounded by the timidity of Grime’s orchestral writing; not merely her safe, familiar use of the instruments, it’s the lack of anything approximating a release, a true letting-go of control, that makes the majority of the seven works on this disc feel so thoroughly grounded. Striving for equilibrium doesn’t require one to be so equivocal. Read more
Turning to electronic music, i want to highlight several recent releases from the Entr’acte label. Founded in 1999 in London but today based in Antwerp, Entr’acte’s output has always made an impression long before any of the music has been heard. Their approach, not unique but certainly unusual among labels seeking to promote new music, has always been to present each release with essentially generic design work and packaging, and a bare minimum of supplementary text. For years, the CDs were actually contained within hermetically sealed packets that required cutting open to access the content; today, they come either in small cardboard wallets emblazoned with their catalogue number or in digipacks with a daub of colour. For all its aloof utilitarianism, there’s undoubtedly something of a pose being struck by Entr’acte, but the way it rejects conventional notions of consumer appeal is an extremely positive thing. Composers are supremely gifted at getting in the way of their own music, in their efforts to seek to demystify its intangibility with tracts of programme notes and contextual disjecta membra. Entr’acte clearly takes the view that such verbiage is a crutch required by neither composer nor audience; a courageous view, certainly, but one supremely vindicated by the quality of their diverse catalogue.
The 5:4 doormat has been inundated with a stream of new releases falling onto it through the last few weeks, many of which are outstanding and deserve fuller treatment in due course—but to at least get the ball rolling, here’s an overview of some of the best, starting with chamber music. Read more
Have you heard of Fuzzy? No, i hadn’t either – so i was pleased to explore a new compilation of music by the enigmatically-monikered Danish composer (otherwise known as Jens Vilhelm Pedersen), recently released by DaCapo. Chimes of Memory presents five works, most of them pretty hefty and which together indicate a composer of diverse interests and decidedly playful outlook. Electronics feature prominently, yet the longest piece is his 30-minute Notre-Dame Trilogy for solo organ, completed in 2006. Fuzzy’s approach to the instrument is clearly rooted in the 20th century French organ tradition but this doesn’t so much fetter the music as provide a frame of reference for it to circle around, bash against and, occasionally, flee from. As such, although regimented within highly compartmentalised structures, Fuzzy’s irrepressible humour and sense of fun keeps the music from being all about an ongoing sense of formal interconnectedness. Put simply, intuition and whim seem to have led the way, and despite some lurches into quasi-Baroque figurations and one or two rather obvious melodic homages to Dupré and Tournemire, Fuzzy more than stamps his own mark on this most unwieldy of instruments, only occasionally using it at full blast. Electronics are clearly close to Fuzzy’s heart, though, often evocative to the point of resembling TV/movie soundtracks. In a piece like B-Movies, for harp and electronics, it’s quite deliberate, the soloist acting as a foil to the electronic scene-shifting around it. But Tre tilbageblik for bass saxophone and electronics clarifies that a dramatic sensibility—and a highly accessible one at that—is an essential part of Fuzzy’s language. Read more