CD/Digital releases

New releases: Michael Finnissy – WAM

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The other recent release dedicated to Michael Finnissy‘s music is the product of a collaboration between the composer and clarinettist Michael Norsworthy. WAM, released on US label New Focus Recordings, explores five works composed during the last 25 years, three of them written specifically for Norsworthy, and all but one of which are recorded here for the first time. The main theme, for want of a better word, running through the collection is an examination of what constitutes a meaningful musical ‘connection’ between discrete performers and types of material. With respect to individuated, partially- or wholly-asynchronous parts, this has been a recurring feature throughout Finnissy’s career (manifesting in many of the works covered in my recent Lent Series), and this disc clarifies the concomitant fact that sense and/or coherence become very much more subjective and potentially problematic within such a context. Read more

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New releases: Michael Finnissy – Singular Voices

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What with 2016 being Michael Finnissy‘s 70th year, it’s heartening to see some new releases celebrating his work. Throughout his career, no label has done more to champion Finnissy than Metier, whose latest CD Singular Voices, released yesterday, is their twelfth devoted to Finnissy’s music (i’ll be exploring the rest in future articles). Recorded over a decade ago, the disc features a variety of works for soprano with and without clarinet and/or piano, performed by Clare Lesser, Carl Rosman and David Lesser respectively. The works date from a wide period of time, the earliest from a collection of 18 songs composed from 1966–78, the most recent from 1990, but a sense of both consistency and even continuity can be perceived throughout. This is clearly all music by the same composer. Read more

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New releases: Anders Hillborg, Hans Abrahamsen

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Continuing with Scandinavian new releases, a new disc from Bis featuring four works by Anders Hillborg is a real treat. It’s a generalisation, of course, but the focus of Hillborg’s music tends to be on the surface, and this understandably polarises listeners. Usually, the successes of this approach come out on top, and it’s therefore a genuine surprise to hear the main work on the disc, Sirens, not just falling short, but entirely failing. Using a text drawn from Homer, Hillborg’s setting utilises two soprano soloists, mixed choir and orchestra, and you’d be forgiven through the opening minutes for thinking that the most remarkable mise-en-scène was being established. It is unquestionably striking, but once the choir has entered, and a few minutes later the soloists, it soon becomes clear that nothing is being set up, we’re there already—were there, in fact, at the very start. In a way that directly parallels John Tavener, Hillborg is seeking a 33-minute orgasmic wave, but despite moments of utter beauty, the piece is simply so caught up in the attempt to relay its never-ending ecstatic allure that it becomes overwhelmingly cloying and dumbfounded. The harmonic proximity to the (dis-)likes of Eric Whitacre don’t exactly help. But it’s the odd one out on a disc that is otherwise nothing but a delight. Read more

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A telling contemporary engagement with archetypes: Bent Sørensen – Snowbells

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What leaps out immediately on Snowbells, a new collection of choral works by Bent Sørensen, and constantly throughout, is the composer’s deep, thoughtful engagement with intense emotion, particularly the themes of life, love and death. Words, and the layers of connotation and meaning encapsulated within them, are clearly not just important to Sørensen, they’re everything. The ways in which he expresses them involve a telling contemporary engagement with archetypes, sounding at once embedded in history—not just of music, but of humanity itself—yet also squarely at the forefront of present-day thought and feeling. Sørensen frequently draws on the language and demeanour of traditional music in his settings, four-square structures articulated through rich consonance, as in Sneeklokken (‘snowbell’) for solo voice and the short choral hymn Havet står så blankt og stille (‘The sea stands so still and shining’), the pair of works that book-end the disc. Some like to describe this kind of simplicity with words like ‘courageous’ or even ‘defiant’; Sørensen just sounds authentic, and it’s an authenticity that proves increasingly moving as he leads us into more obviously modern soundworlds. The Snowbells cycle (originally composed as part of an art installation) utilises the melody from its solo precedent as both a starting point and something of a refrain, now exploring each stanza separately. Familiarity permeates its every moment, though often through a filter of smears and smudges; and a pair of the movements where Sørensen ignores text and switches to soft humming is one of the album’s most exquisite episodes, as though the choir were inwardly ruminating on the music in an act of communal contemplation. Read more

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New releases: Matthias Kaul, Ensemble Musikfabrik – works by Cage, Hosokawa, Harvey, Poppe, Saariaho & Nunes

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Three recent releases on Wergo have stayed true to the German label’s tendency to go above and beyond one’s expectations. It’s hard to say which is more remarkable, John Cage or percussionist Matthias Kaul, on Cage After Cage, an album featuring renditions of six of the composer’s works for percussion, dating from as far back as 1956 to as recent as 1990. In many respects, the collection as a whole can be heard as tapping (literally) into the very essence of what percussion is, namely the banging, scraping and rubbing of objects. The range of sounds and timbres captured here borders on the encyclopaedic, even in otherwise modest contexts, such as Kaul’s version of Composed Improvisation (1990) for solo snare drum. i’m not sure i actually heard anything approximating to a snare anywhere in the piece; instead, following a collection of friction noises with light ricochets, comes a high chord(!), perfectly in tune, spacially-separated hocketing impacts, and a descending Shepard tone-like sequence of strikes. In other words, sounds that defy one’s understanding of a snare drum, articulated and excited via an assortment of unconventional triggers (including, by the sound of things, an ebow). Read more

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New releases: Bernat Vivancos, Fritz Hauser

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The most recent pair of new releases from the always excellent Spanish label Neu Records are particularly interesting, both on their own terms as well as in the marked way they contrast with each other in compositional outlook and intent. Neu has particularly championed the music of Bernat Vivancos; 2011 brought Blanc, a double album of vivid, gently experimental choral works, and this has now been followed with another 2-disc set, featuring Vivancos’ large-scale Requiem. It’s a work that will, on the one hand, appeal to those who like their choral music with the kind of harmonic simplicity and clarity associated with composers like Arvo Pärt and Morten Lauridsen. On the other hand, in his Requiem—a 98-minute work for choir, soloists, solo cello and cello quartet, accordion and percussion—Vivancos has to some extent sought to distance himself from conventional models, rejecting entirely the traditional text in favour of proverbs and poetry, together with Biblical excerpts and theological/philosophical musings. As such, and in the context of a requiem this is rather fascinating, the work becomes an infusion of both emotion and intellect, spirituality and science comingling in an act of expression that goes beyond mere grief into something altogether more complex, and which is all the more moving as a result. Read more

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New releases: Jürg Frey / Wandelweiser

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With the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival poised to kick off tomorrow, i’m focusing 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

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New releases: Gottfried Huppertz, Elliott Sharp, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Coppice

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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.
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Indeterminate, interactive son et lumière: Kenneth Kirschner & Joshue Ott’s Variant

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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.
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New releases: Gilles Gobeil, Åke Parmerud, Morton Subotnick, Tim Wright, Volker Hennes, John Wall/Alex Rodgers, Veli-Matti Puumala, Marko Ciciliani

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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.
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New releases: Hans Werner Henze, Coppice, Galina Ustvolskaya, Gabriel Ledoux, Susanna Gartmayer, Alva Noto, Robert Normandeau, Erik Nyström

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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

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New releases: Simon Steen-Andersen, Monty Adkins & Stephen Harvey, Jennifer Walshe

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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

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New releases: Mark Andre, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Phil Minton & Simon H. Fell, Kreng

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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.
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New releases: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Markus Reuter, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Arditti Quartet, Eric Craven, Audiobulb, Zbigniew Karkowski, Nordvargr, Stockhausen

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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 Aerial, 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 Aeriality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths and 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

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New releases: Messiaen, Paul Dolden, Richard Uttley, iamamiwhoami, Davíð Brynjar Franzson, Shivers

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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

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New releases: ensemble/orchestral

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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

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New releases: electronic

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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.
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New releases: chamber

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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

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New releases: Fuzzy, Craig Leon, Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek, Tim Hodgkinson

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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

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New releases: Duologue, OY, V/Vm

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Among the swathe of new releases currently jostling around the 5:4 jukebox, i want to start by flagging up two interesting recent releases, both serendipitous discoveries from the panning-for-gold approach to listening that is my modus operandi these days. First is Duologue, a five-piece from London whose latest EP, Memex, has initiated a host of earworms that are continuing to burrow around my subconscious at the moment. It’s an obvious place to begin, but their sound has more than a little to do with Radiohead, and not simply due to singer Tim Digby-Bell’s ululating vocals that often sound strikingly like a less defocused Thom Yorke. Their songs share Radiohead’s interest in playing with the multiplicity of conventions associated with rock and pop. Thus, the EP’s title track melds dream pop and autotune to strange effect, crumbling into a hard-edged coda, while ‘Operator’ bumbles along at a fair old lick, with some nicely-judged harmonic shifts in a pair of softer episodes that break up the momentum—yet overall carrying a sense of ecstatic stasis, made manifest in the song’s energetic dancefloor-infused conclusion. But third track ‘Traps’ stands out way beyond either of these, evoking music from an earlier time while conjuring up a sense of balmy humidity; this is checked by the song’s regular structural shifts where major and minor tonality are superimposed (such a simple use of dissonance but still more-or-less unheard of in music of this kind) to delicious effect. Having also spent time with the group’s first album, Song and Dance (which i also warmly recommend), ‘Traps’ is definitely their strongest song to date, mature and subtle. The EP is available in physical formats (CD/vinyl) direct from the band and in digital from all the usual places, plus you can stream it below. Read more

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