Commemorations

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.

Elliott Carter – Heart, not so heavy as mine

FLAC [22Mb]

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

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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”:

Makoto Ooka – 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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