CD/Digital releases

Formalised & spontaneous: Liza Lim – Tongue of the Invisible

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New & not-so-new CD & digital releases have had pretty short shrift on 5:4 this year, which might suggest not much has been making an impression. Not only is that wrong, it’s almost ludicrously so in the case of the most recent CD in Wergo’s ongoing ‘edition musikFabrik’ series. i’ve commented many times before on how more interesting composers are concomitantly harder to find represented on disc, & that’s especially true of Australian Liza Lim. When i first became acquainted with Lim’s music—17 years ago, in the heady, below-stairs performance space at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre—it was entirely impossible, & little has changed since then, aside from a CD on the hat[now]ART label & a smattering of works on several of the excellent discs put out by Huddersfield University on their label. Wergo have therefore done listeners a great service in making available one of Lim’s more recent & substantial works, Tongue of the Invisible. Read more

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Mixed but strong & accessible: Joseph Phibbs – The Canticle of the Rose

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A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs & a pair of instrumental works, focussing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells & Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.

The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute & piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back & forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—& soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano & string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling & bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, & he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest & at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back & forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ & ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue.

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Fearless forays into choral hinterlands: Exaudi – Exposure

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Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests & skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.

Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, & there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings & meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, & the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity & arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced & boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control & consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings.

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Minimal & dangerously liminal: Jakob Ullmann – fremde zeit addendum 4

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Despite the fact that writing about amazing music is such an unalloyed pleasure, there are times—many more times than i would care to admit—when the music skitters away, becoming elusive when confronted by one’s attempts to speak of it. Perhaps there’s no dishonour in being confounded by glory, but the frustration has never been more acute than when trying to write about the music of Jakob Ullmann. Including the outstanding fremde zeit addendum 3CD boxset of his music near the top of my 2012 Best Albums list wasn’t just an act of fitting celebration but also of defeat; the bland paragraph i wrote to accompany its entry came after umpteen doomed attempts at something more substantial earlier in the year. So when the Edition RZ label recently sent me their latest release of his music, fremde zeit addendum 4, it seemed only fitting to try again.

For anyone unacquainted with Ullmann’s music, there are equivalent points of entry to be found in any of the releases Edition RZ has put out over the last few years, A Catalogue of Sounds, voice, books and FIRE 3, the aforementioned boxset as well as this new CD. It’s worth mentioning that Edition RZ—one of the most forward-looking of labels in any case—has been essentially a lone advocate where Ullmann is concerned; considering how many of his works remain unperformed & recorded, other labels would be wise, finally, to catch on. For there is something truly extraordinary going on in Jakob Ullmann’s music, music that positions itself in a place that is both minimal & dangerously liminal. Read more

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Evocative bewilderments of utterance: Kenneth Hesketh – Wunderkammer(konzert)

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Among the recent releases from the NMC Recordings stable i was pleased to see one devoted to the music of Kenneth Hesketh. Ken’s music has intrigued me for some years, & i’ve had the good fortune to conduct one of his works (Fra Duri Scogli) back in 2010. The new NMC disc brings together a cluster of pieces, most of which were composed around five years ago. They include no fewer than three orchestral works, plus a pair of ensemble pieces, focussing on commissions for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Ensemble 10/10, who are the respective performers on the disc.

i think it’s only fair to suggest that Hesketh’s music is an acquired taste, & not because it’s particularly ear- or mind-mangling. On the contrary, one of the characteristics that typifies these five works is their overwhelming clarity, which over time can become a tad relentless, even oppressive. Yet that’s an integral aspect of the multi-faceted charm that is equally typical of this music. When turned in the direction of an archetypal concert-opener, as in A Rhyme for the Season, the orchestral forces are kept firmly in place, embodying the kind of spiky, ants-in-the-pants restlessness that fans of mainstream (i.e. published) British music will find very familiar, yet treated to more than usually enchanting orchestration. Ideas pass at breakneck speed between the sections, & despite its relative functionality, there are some nicely unexpected structural moments that prevent it feeling workaday or staid. Read more

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Best Albums of 2012 (Part 2)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

The lists reduce the vastness into controllable sizes, into the size of things that can fit into our mind, where they can expand again to the size of everything. The list is the way of fitting everything in one place at one time, so that we can take it with us, so that we can fit it all inside a microchip, a chip we can then fit inside our soul. … The list is a code for everything we are, the list is a diagram, sometimes extremely slight and incomplete, sometimes unbelievably deep and complete, of eternity.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here we go, then, with the absolute pinnacle of this year’s albums, every one of them essential listening. Read more

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Best Albums of 2012 (Part 1)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

This is a list surrounded by other lists leading to other lists, lists … that explain everything by being gateways into worlds of sound, feeling and information…
…the love of making lists is an attempt to remind us of what it is that has happened, and what is happening, all at once, as time and humanity collapses into itself. …
The list is a collage of hopes and wishes, of knowledge and exhibitionism.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

So we move on to the list of lists, the forty albums that have made the greatest impact over the last twelve months. Here are the first twenty to have made the cut.

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