Commemorations

In memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson

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First encounters can be unforgettable. Mine was in 2006, and it was the result of an entirely random purchase of an entirely random imported music magazine (German, i think) that contained a disc featuring a cluster of forgettable audio trifles plus a music video. When i hit play on that video, time suddenly started to slow down, and i became transfixed and deeply moved by the enormity of the music’s unusual mix of melancholy and beauty. The music was ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden death has been reported in the last few hours. He was just 48.

i can’t claim to be an expert in Jóhannsson’s music. i love IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, the album of which ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim’ is the stunning final track, and i know a smattering of his other solo works. Being a movie addict, i’m also fond of the film scores of his that i’ve encountered thus far – particularly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – though as i still haven’t yet seen Sicario and Prisoners there remains much for me to explore. i’m certainly not going to miss The Mercy, which has just been released in the UK and has a Jóhannsson score, and there’s a couple more films still to come that feature his work.

Even though there’s a great deal of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music that i have yet to encounter, all i’ve heard thus far has testified to a composer with a unique sensitivity, capable in both his studio work and film scores of creating the most nuanced and above all human music, never contrived or ordinary, with an immediacy that i find genuinely uncanny. From the heart to the heart, indeed. i was reflecting on Jóhannsson last autumn, specifically how he had been replaced in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which i think was unfortunate – i would have loved to have seen that movie with a Jóhannsson score (it would certainly have been far more inventive than Hans Zimmer’s ersatz Vangelis knock-off) – as well as the mutual decision by both Jóhannsson and Darren Aronofsky to refrain from creating a score for Aronofsky’s mother!. Considering that mother! turned out to be one of the most brilliant films not just of 2017, but ever, i was deeply impressed by a composer who recognised that there’s a time not to make music, that sometimes what’s needed is just the gentlest whiff of something that may not even be recognised as deliberate sound, which can speak with infinitely greater force and authenticity.

In so many ways Jóhann Jóhannsson has impressed me since that unexpected first encounter nearly 11 years ago. i’m shocked and very sad indeed that he’s no longer with us, but i’m determined to make sure that i now get on with listening to everything else that he made while he was with us. i’ve no doubt there’ll be many more wonderful encounters to come. Rest in peace, Jóhann.


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Remembering Stuart Stevens

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i learned a few minutes ago that one of my PhD colleagues at the Birmingham Conservatoire, composer Stuart Stevens, has died of a heart attack. From a personal perspective, this is obviously extremely sad news; PhDs can be strange, remote, disheartening and somewhat alienating beasts, and Stuart was someone who was able consistently to inject huge amounts of lightness and hilarity, leaving one feeling not just cheered but remarkably encouraged. In the last few years, as he was based in Suffolk my encounters with Stuart were more occasional and fleeting—i think the last time was a chance crossing paths at an HCMF concert at Huddersfield Town Hall—and i only wish we’d had a lot more time and opportunities to talk. From a wider perspective, Stuart’s passing is a real loss; his primary area of interest was in exploring new articulations (what he referred to as the “emancipation”) of microtonality, to some extent building on the legacy of Harry Partch but equally trying to forge a new outlook on an area that remains at the fringes of contemporary musical development. His energy and enthusiasm for the subject were utterly convincing and contagious, every conversation peppered with extensive descriptions of the methods and devices he had been exploring or was intending to utilise in future projects. Some of Stuart’s music can be found on his YouTube channel, while his website has further audio examples plus extensive information about his work with microtonality.

Stuart Stevens’ entire attitude to composition was one of the most admirable and inspiring i’ve ever come across, and it’s a really terrible shame that he’s no longer with us. My most heartfelt condolences go out to his partner Gordon; Stuart will be very deeply missed.

 

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In Memoriam: Richard Rodney Bennett – Goodbye for Now

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2012 has almost drawn to a close, but not before claiming another prominent musical voice: Richard Rodney Bennett, who passed away on Christmas Eve aged 76. Bennett began his compositional life as something of a modernist, studying with Boulez and showing a distinct interest in serialism. But i suspect it’s for his lighter music, particularly jazz, that Bennett will be most fondly remembered. In the late 1990s i worked for the Cheltenham Music Festival, and on one occasion was charged with being Bennett’s assistant for an evening cabaret at the Town Hall (with, i think, Cleo Laine). Until then, i was generally grumpy in the presence of anything jazz-related, but that night everything changed, and i remember being amazed at the wit and sophistication of Bennett’s performance (and, for what it’s worth, he remains one of the most charming composers i’ve ever met).

Around the same time, BBC Music Magazine gave away a free CD of Bennett’s music, featuring his Four Jazz Songs. On hearing of his death, the last of these songs, ‘Goodbye for Now’, came immediately to mind. Read more

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

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To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion and insight into sacred thought and action that made him entirely unique, and not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself – irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity – is perhaps the most fascinating and engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir and Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, which was broadcast a few years ago in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week exploring Harvey’s music. Read more

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In Memoriam: Elliott Carter – Heart, not so heavy as mine

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Words by E. E. Cummings that came to mind last night following the first reports of the death of Elliott Carter, at the age of 103. i know i wasn’t alone in feeling an intensely heavy sadness at the news; one tended to think Carter was so single-mindedly alive that death couldn’t quite see the point in claiming him. But Carter is, at last, gone from us, and to mark his passing, here’s a relatively early work of his that seems rather fitting. It’s from a concert by the BBC Singers, conducted by Philippe Bach, which was broadcast in February this year.

Carter’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Heart, not so heavy as mine’ dates from 1938. It embraces the wistful sentiment of the words, the first two stanzas preoccupied by a single tonality (B-flat minor), as though grounded, fixed in place. As the words start to become imaginative, freed from their present isolation, Carter immediately switches to lively counterpoint and a wider harmonic palette, the voices now soaring over thoughts of birds and brooks, in a burst of reverie that’s all the more moving in light of its conclusion; for, just as it reaches a climax (“Without the knowing why”), the bass and tenor voices immediately return to the opening stanza, instantly bursting the song’s bubble. These words continue to infiltrate the optimistic coda, but Carter ultimately avoids ambivalence by letting the major tonality prevail.

It’s a piece that smiles albeit with tears in its eyes, which perhaps couldn’t be more appropriate. Very truly, a great man is gone.


Text

Heart, not so heavy as mine,
Wending late home,
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune,—

A careless snatch, a ballad,
A ditty of the street;
Yet to my irritated ear
An anodyne so sweet,

It was as if a bobolink,
Sauntering this way,
Carolled and mused and carolled,
Then bubbled slow away.

It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a toilsome way
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why.

To-morrow, night will come again,
Weary, perhaps, and sore.
Ah, bugle, by my window,
I pray you stroll once more!

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In Memoriam: Hans Werner Henze – Symphony No. 5

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Commemorations | 3 Comments

Yesterday brought the very sad news that the composer Hans Werner Henze has died. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary—i only know a little of Henze’s life, and have only really scratched the surface of his considerable output—but by way of a small tribute, here’s a performance of his Symphony No. 5. Henze’s ten symphonies vary greatly in their scope, scale and instrumentation, and the Fifth is one of his most concise, lasting around 15 minutes. Henze composed the symphony in 1962, a year after he had relocated to the Marino region of Italy (Henze left Germany for good in the early 1950s, revolted by its politics and homophobia). The nearby city of Rome was his primary inspiration; Henze described the symphony as dealing with “dramatic portrayals of sensual conflicts and joys prompted by the sensuous happiness of 20th century Rome, its people, its countryside and surroundings, and even by its somewhat harder dialect in comparison to that of Naples where I previously lived”. Read more

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Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) – Study No. 7

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Today is the 100th anniverary of the birth of North America’s most singularly unorthodox composer, Conlon Nancarrow. Born in Arkansas but spending most of his life in Mexico, Nancarrow’s legacy is dominated by the large number of studies he composed for the player piano. His compositional practice was a punctilious and painstaking one, establishing the rhythms and pitches of the piece and then slowly punching them as holes into the roll of piano paper—perhaps the earliest example of a composer using a ‘program’ to create instrumental music (interestingly, Nancarrow’s first such study dates from the late 1940s, the same time that computer programming was becoming a practical reality). Barely acknowledged until the last twenty years of his life, Nancarrow’s work eventually became recognised for what it is: a dazzling and entirely unique enigma, as well as the most thoroughgoing and fundamental re-evaluation and re-thinking of counterpoint since the time of J. S. Bach. Read more

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Tōru Takemitsu – From me flows what you call time (UK Première)

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It was on this day, in 1930, that one of my favourite composers, the great Tōru Takemitsu, was born. So to mark what would have been his 82nd birthday, here’s one of his most spectacular orchestral works, the wonderfully-named From me flows what you call time. The title is taken from a poem by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka, titled “Clear Blue Water”:

Summer trip to Switzerland:
in our bellies, sausages
eaten on the Zermatt terrace,
foot of the Matterhorn,
slowly turns into
heat: 1000 calories each.

As we climb up and up
the Furka Pass, my eyes
suddenly are perforated
by a billion particles
of heavenly blue:
across the valley a giant
mountain rampart:
The Glacier.

Swinging up its snow-
crowned sky-blue fist,
that ancient water spirit
shouts:

“From me
flows
what you
call Time.”

Down from that colossal
mass of shining ice
flows the majestic
River Rhone.

The piece is in part inspired by the Tibetan idea of the wind horse, an allegorical conception of the human soul, familiar to many in the well-known associated sequence of five coloured flags, representative of the elements: fire (red), water (blue), earth (yellow), sky (white) and wind (green). Takemitsu makes the number five significant; the work’s principal theme is essentially a five-note motif, and in addition to the orchestra he writes for a five-piece percussion ensemble. Percussion, in fact, dominates the piece, decked out with a plethora of exotic bells, chimes, gongs, singing bowls and drums to the point that it could almost be described as a percussion concerto. Nonetheless, though, the 30-minute work displays Takemitsu’s typically fine instrumental homogeneity, every instrument seemingly directed towards a common objective, albeit an objective that is often both nebulous and fluid. Takemitsu’s penchant for strolling around gardens when contemplating new compositions makes itself felt as much in this piece as in so many of his others, moving to and between a large number of ‘scenes’ or ‘vistas’, moments when his exquisite textural vagueness abruptly coalesces into something tangible. Read more

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Jehan Alain – Trois Danses

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Today marks the anniversary of the death of Jehan Alain, one of the most interesting and enigmatic French composers of the first half of the twentieth century. To me, Alain’s unique musical sensibility draws comparison with two other composers; the free-spirited, swirling exoticism and spontaneous evocations of feeling suggest Alexander Scriabin, while the introspective, at times almost mystical nature of the music (particularly in his sense of pacing and remarkable use of melody) brings to mind the deep intensity of Alain’s great contemporary, Charles Tournemire. Alain has been on my mind a great deal lately, particularly as i’ve recently finished work on a lengthy electronic piece composed in Alain’s memory. Titled Night Liminal, it’ll be released on CD in the not-too-distant future; more information about that soon. But to commemorate today, here’s a recording of one of Alain’s most fascinating compositions, the Trois Danses, originally composed for piano in 1937, when Alain was 26 years old, and arranged for organ two years later. Alain also began making an orchestral arrangement of the work but the manuscript was famously sucked from the carriage of a moving train, and tragically never recovered. Read more

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Death and transfiguration: the music of Celer

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A little over a week ago, i began writing a post. Here’s how it began…

At the close of 2008, when i posted my favourite albums of the year, i mentioned that the list was necessarily provisional. Six months and a considerable amount of listening later, i’ve now realised there’s one group that is conspicuous by their absence. At least, they were partially present, in the brief mention i made of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann that found itself at no. 9 in my top 40 of the year’s releases. They are Celer, a duo made up of husband and wife Dani Baquet-Long and Will Long.

A couple of days after writing those words, tragedy struck: Dani died, following a sudden heart failure. Thus, Will has lost his wife and musical collaborator, and we’ve all lost a fascinating, highly creative and imaginative artist. i recently established contact with Will and Dani, and had hoped to get to know them both a little better, and conduct an interview with them soon for 5:4. So, in the wake of Dani’s abrupt passing, i feel both immense sadness and profound disappointment. As ever, though, the music lives on, serving as an infinitely more eloquent eulogy and testament than words ever could. It’s in that spirit, then, that i’m continuing to write this post.

Celer have been actively releasing their work since 2004, five years that have produced a simply astounding amount of music: no fewer than 37 releases, most of which are full-length albums, alongside a smattering of shorter EPs. But quality and quantity are difficult bed-fellows, which makes it all the more remarkable that so much of Celer’s output is so interesting and engaging. After two false starts—listening to Mesoscaphe last year and a little release in February—i’ve spent the last month listening to almost nothing other than their music, and a dizzying experience it’s been. Where to begin… Read more

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Great Lives – Ian Curtis

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Today’s episode of Great Lives, on BBC Radio 4, was devoted to Joy Division’s lead singer, the late and much-lamented Ian Curtis. Many, many words have been spoken and written about this man, but the programme doesn’t stoop to probing his tortured remains or erecting pedestals to his memory.

Matthew Parris sensitively discusses Curtis’ life and legacy with poet Simon Armitage, and Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, and the result is touching and respectful, with some insights, but what comes across most—particularly from Hook—is a sad lack of understanding and palpable regret at Curtis’ suicide. The programme contains a fabulous highlight: an all too brief excerpt from an unreleased acoustic recording of Joy Division’s most well-known song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; Ian Curtis’ voice sounds mature, solid and entirely beautiful. Read more

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