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Proms 2019: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who took part in this year’s Proms première polls. As ever, there was a stark imbalance in the number of votes certain works received, but interestingly, whereas in previous years this tended to be focused on works performed earlier in the festival (since there was more time available to vote for them), this year more than ever there was a much more even spread throughout the season as a whole, including pieces premièred quite late. Not surprisingly, it was the better-known composers and/or the most substantial works that garnered the greatest number of votes, while the four short pieces commissioned to ‘respond’ to music by Bach received least interest of all – which arguably says something about how worthwhile it was for the BBC to continue to flog that particular horse.

Speaking of disinterest, it was one of those Bach-related works, Ailie Robertson‘s Chaconne, that received the biggest ‘Meh’ response overall, closely followed by Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Naiad, while at the opposite extreme, the work that proved most divisive was Tobias Broström‘s Nigredo – Dark Night of the Soul, with opinions strongly polarised. But away from the shrugs and the bickering, here are the main winners and losers of this year’s Proms, as voted for by you. Read more

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Proms 2018: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you for the comments you made and votes you cast during my coverage of the premières at the 2018 Proms season. A total of 1,467 votes were cast this year, an increase of 34% on last year’s ‘turnout’.

Once again, there was something of an imbalance in the extent to which certain pieces attracted more votes than others. For the last few years, whichever new work is played first in the season – often in the first night of the Proms – has usually attracted the largest number of votes, which isn’t necessarily surprising, both in terms of the amount of time people have to express a view about this piece being longer than any other, as well as it generally tending to attract more attention as it gets the Proms ball rolling. That was again the case this year, with Anna Meredith’s opening night première Five Telegrams receiving the most votes (97). Aside from this, the ‘turnout’ figure for most of the pieces was broadly consistent, though as ever there were one or two that stood out due to apparent voter apathy, the worst affected this year being Iain Bell’s Aurora, curiously attracting a mere 17 votes.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning in passing that, in addition to establishing what you’ve deemed to be the best and worst new works, my number-crunching also looks at the most divisive and most uninteresting (i.e. ‘meh’) pieces as well. This year, Ēriks Ešenvalds‘ choral work Shadow proved the most divisive, with the positives and negatives exactly matched, and the piece that left the majority of you shrugging with indifference was Luca Francesconi‘s weird WWI commemoration We Wept. But let’s turn our attention to the real winners and losers this year. Read more

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Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

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i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 1,096 votes were cast, an increase of 17% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted. Read more

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January 2017 listenings

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Comment, Listenings | 2 Comments

i remarked in passing recently about the disparity between music i’ve listened to and music i’ve (not) written about, so as an adjunct to my reviews of new releases, i’m going to offer a brief monthly insight into some of the more interesting and/or noteworthy things to have entered my ears. Belatedly, here’s January’s:

Ari Mason – Creatures

i’m totally new to Ari Mason’s music, but stumbled across her 2015 single ‘Dim the Lights’ at the start of the year, which in turn led to me exploring Creatures, her first album. ‘Dim the Lights’ is included and is easily one of the album’s highlights, a really catchy song that i return to unhealthily often, with a half-speed chorus that’s a lovely touch, undermining the song’s sense of pace (the song is available as a free download on a three-track EP). Mason’s voice has a deliciously deep register and a smoky timbre, which in this light synthpop context makes for a beautifully effective combination, shot through with trace elements of melancholy. i wish i’d encountered Creatures sooner; it would definitely have appeared on my best of 2016 list. [Bandcamp]

Rose Elinor Dougall – Stellular

It’s slightly disgraceful that i’ve never yet written about Dougall’s output on 5:4, as i’ve been a fan ever since she did the right thing and went solo many, many years ago. Suffice it to say i have everything she’s released to date, which perhaps says something. It’s been a long wait for Stellular (her first album, Without Why, came out in 2010) but well worth it. Standout songs are ‘Strange Warnings’ and ‘Stellular’, but the whole album is a real treat, blending tip-of-the-tongue hints of something retro with an irresistably fresh pop outlook. If this whets your appetite, i highly recommend her 2013 EP Future Vanishes (which features a nice earlier version of ‘Strange Warnings’), the title track of which is one of the best pop songs i’ve heard in absolutely years. [Amazon]

Köhnen Pandí Duo – Darkness Comes In Two’s

Simply amazing; review here.

The Thing With Five Eyes – KOSMOS

Linked to the above release due to the leadership of Jason Köhnen, this is another iteration of what was once The Kilimajaro Darkjazz Ensemble and The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Also titled in Persian (كون), KOSMOS includes all four tracks from the group’s separately available EP نور, along with loads of unreleased pieces, forming a stunning one-hour tapestry of post-apocalyptic jazz elements flecked and frazzled with beautiful, brute force electronics. [Bandcamp]

Cristobal Tapia De Veer – The Girl With All The Gifts (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of last year’s best movies – and one of the most intelligent films to explore, admittedly obliquely (and with a twist), the otherwise tired zombie apocalypse trope – gets an equally admirable soundtrack courtesy of Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer. Gentle yet eerie, tender but menacing, it has refreshingly little to do with conventional movie scores, opting instead to surround and nourish the film’s narrative with a score that evokes, alludes and hints, often from a distance, rather than trying to spoon-feed or manipulate at point-blank range. [Bandcamp]

One other brief thought: i was listening quite a bit to Mica Levi‘s score for Jackie last month, and it’s baffling that it should have received the attention it has, including an Academy Award nomination, considering how inferior it is to the music she composed for Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing film Under the Skin a few years ago. She’s clearly an interesting composer – i’ve written about her on several occasions – but much of the attention her music for Jackie has received – particularly from film critic Mark Kermode, who has bizarrely convinced himself it’s of major importance – is sheer hyperbole. To be clear: the score to Jackie is careful, nuanced and at times wonderfully and appropriately weird (though never as much as in the film’s remarkable, highly-concentrated trailer), but much of it, heard in isolation, is plain atmospheric blah, instantly forgettable, whereas her music for Under the Skin, entirely ignored by the Academy, remains one of the most innovative, chillingly effective approaches to film music of the last ten or twenty years, every moment of it impossible to forget. That score absolutely should have been awarded an Oscar, but not this one. Credit where credit’s due.

 

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HCMF 2016: afterthoughts and reflections

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I intended this to be part of yesterday’s final report, but as I’m still grappling with a virus at present I decided to tackle it separately. Looking back on HCMF 2016, it’s been another thoroughly enjoyable festival, not that I suspected it would be otherwise. The choice of Georg Friedrich Haas was a good one, in my view, perhaps even an unexpectedly beneficial one considering the world’s ongoing pained reaction to recent political outcomes. Haas proved himself not only a charismatic composer with an ear for fascinating sonorities and a keen sense of how to deploy theatricality, but also a deeply sensitive individual whose poignant ‘Meet the Composer’ conversation on Saturday morning will remain for many people, I’m sure, an important, cherished memory. It’s simplistic and trivial to dismiss his work, as one or two commentators have, as mere hype and hullabaloo; the reasons why he does what he does come from a place of utter humanity. It’s all the more frustrating then, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, that despite being ‘Composer in Residence’, Haas’ music was only showcased during the opening weekend, after which he quickly felt entirely peripheral; surprisingly different from how the featured composers have been represented at HCMF in recent years.

Beyond this, a year ago I noted in passing that the representation of women composers at the festival was poor, responsible for only 16% of pieces performed throughout the festival. This year the figure has improved somewhat: looking at both the number of pieces as well as the durations of those pieces, the result was 25% of the music at HCMF 2016 composed by women. A step in the right direction, to be sure, but it’s still somewhat sobering to note that at no fewer than 65% of the concerts women composers were entirely absent (male composers were absent from 13%). It’s not all about the numbers, of course, but these numbers are hardly irrelevant.

Back to the actual sounds, and the way non- or semi-improvised music continued to feature prominently at the festival was fruitful and thought-provoking. I’m still somewhat agog at the concert given by John Butcher with Trio Kimmig-Studer-Zimmerlin, entirely improvised but which could have been presented as a sequence of fully-composed pieces and I would have believed it. All of which only made the experience more fascinatingly discombobulating when, the following day, at The Stone Orchestra‘s gig (which included the trio) the improvisations now sounded loose, disconnected, arbitrary and ultimately implausible. With improvisation, it seems, you really never can tell. Following last year’s push in the direction of Wandelweiser, it was nice that that wasn’t entirely forgotten this year, and Marianne Schuppe‘s recital was a hugely refreshing and welcome contrast to—well, to almost everything else that had been going on.

Overall, while it’s not necessarily HCMF’s primary purpose to act either as a barometer of contemporary music-making or as a testament to its most radical exponents, I think this year’s festival hit a very high standard in both respects. All of us involved in new music trot out the word ‘experimental’ so often it tends to lose all meaning; at HCMF, we get a rare chance to witness genuine musical experimentation going on every day. Experiments don’t have guaranteed outcomes, they’re not safe and secure, and they certainly won’t always succeed. Yet regardless of how they transpire, I for one get an immense thrill at the opportunity to be able to witness it happening and reflect on the aftermath. Conservatism may rule this land ever more aggressively, but in Huddersfield, almost anything remains possible.

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Proms 2016: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who expressed your views on this year’s Proms premières, it’s always fascinating to compare my own responses with those of so many others, particularly when we disagree! Since closing the polls a few days ago, i’ve fed the results (938 votes) into what has become by now quite a clever little spreadsheet—and voilà, here’s a summary of how you all voted.


Worst New Work

Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie

i must admit i’ve wondered whether my own negative reaction to this piece was somewhat churlish considering how much fun Auerbach is evidently aiming it to be. Further reflections haven’t changed my mind, however—if anything, they’ve reinforced it—and the majority of you clearly felt similarly. To quote from my review: “doggerel masquerading as playful pastiche”; certainly a worthy (if that’s the right word) piece to be judged the worst of this year’s premières.

Runners Up

Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes
Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures

Yes, i can see where you’re coming from. While Auerbach’s was, to my mind, the only really egregious example of barrel-bottom-scraping, Lindberg’s was almost an unimpressive. His work in recent years seems to exhibit a kind of laziness, relying on well-worn tropes, that’s disappointing considering how impressive have been some examples of his earlier output. In this particular instance, the Beethoven red herring gives it even less credit. Grime’s music clearly needs an overhaul, pure and simple. It’s limited in scope, tautological and superficial, which is all the more frustrating considering there are moments in the Two Eardley Pictures when one detects something altogether more engagingly nebulous lurking beneath that ultra-crystal clear surface.


Best New Work

Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer

Not my own personal favourite, but a work i enjoyed very much. i still think it’s a risk, de Leeuw extending this lengthy nocturnal meditation to a duration of almost 50 minutes, but i still think he gets away with it (just), avoiding clichés and norms in favour of an ambiguous, spontaneous narrative that’s often strikingly vivid (i can never get that dog’s barking out of my head).

Runners Up

Jörg Widmann – Armonica
Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto

For me, these were the real highlights. i love the mixture of simplicity and complexity that permeates Widmann’s luscious soundworld. It’s a tension that allows one to enjoy the work on a number of levels of engagement; i certainly find more in it each time i hear it. Berkeley’s concerto has, i hope, proved to those who needed convincing that he’s not simply one of the old guard, but a composer simultaneously looking back and forward, embracing the best of both worlds. Beyond this, it’s extremely refreshing to witness a composer being so emotionally raw, a quality that seems to have become alien (or, at best, rationalised) in most contemporary music circles. His concerto ranks among the very best new works that the Proms has heard in recent years.

And in case you’re interested, among the remaining premières, it was Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow that left most of you supremely indifferent, another verdict with which i can readily agree. Once again, i tip my critical hat to the acuity of your discernment.

As i said before the season began, i had been tempted not to bother reviewing this year’s new works, due to the timidity of the selected composers, and while it’s turned out to be more interesting than i’d feared, there’s no doubt at all that the Proms seems to have barely a clue about contemporary music. One of its worst offences, which i’ve probably mentioned every year, is its singular lack of interest in/awareness of electroacoustic music, expanding instrumental groups with electronics. It seems the Proms believes you’re either entirely acoustic and therefore classical, or you use electronics and you’re therefore pop. i couldn’t give a monkey’s about the Proms’ insistence on including pop-related concerts—that’s even less of a crime than clapping between movements (which isn’t and never has been a crime anyway, so shush)—but their ignorant failure to explore what contemporary composers are doing to integrate acoustic and electronic composition is as embarrassing as it is shameful. Proms director David Pickard seriously needs to up his game.

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Don’t believe the hype: some brief reflections on ‘greatness’

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i want to respond briefly to Philip Clark’s article ‘Where have the great composers gone?’, as i both agree and in some ways completely disagree with Clark’s unique blend of perspicacity and polemic. When i was an undergraduate, there were frequent references to and discussions about the notional ‘path’ of becoming a composer. This path, put simply, involved getting some notable performances at music college, attending lots of new music concerts in order to make useful connections, and then—the ultimate goal—to get a publisher, supposedly the compositional equivalent of obtaining tenure. During my Master’s degree, this had evolved to the point where most composers agreed that being allied to a publisher was quickly becoming a pretty old-fashioned idea, due partly to the development and ease of typesetting and self-publishing/promotion, and also due to the fact that, by now, the majority of the larger publishing houses were assimilating more and more mainstream music to ensure their profit margins, reducing their desirability to those of a more avant-garde persuasion. During the last few years, i’ve heard repeatedly from published composers (by those same largest publishing houses) about how indifferent, unhelpful and for the most part worthless publishers are to them, and i personally don’t know a single composer for whom getting hitched to a publisher has even been considered for their list of career aims.

i mention all this partly because Clark repeatedly indicates, correctly, that the idea of ‘greatness’ is inextricably intertwined with the world of publishing hype, but more because this evolving outlook brings to earth with an almighty crash the naïve notions from my undergrad days that were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) concerned with the goal of becoming an ‘established’ composer, and one day, with a favourable wind and no small amount of luck (and/or nepotism), maybe even a great one. Perhaps those notions were once vaguely realistic–or, come to that, real—but i doubt it. Composers surely don’t seek greatness, however that’s defined; indeed, speak to many composers privately about their aspirations and experiences, and what you encounter most often is a kind of humble gratitude that their work is being performed at all. Delusions of grandeur, even aspirational delusions, don’t even come into it. And a good thing too; there’s surely something a little odd—and, i believe, misguided—about the desire for greatness, whether that desire comes from composers themselves or from their audiences and commentators. Clark speaks of the glory days of the Huddersfield Festival, when one could hear the music of illustrious figures and occasionally even rub shoulders with them (or, in Clark’s case, stand behind them at an ATM), but speaking personally, every year during HCMF i get precisely the same thrill from being able to engage with music—and, almost always, the composers—that i deeply admire and who, to my mind, are important artists making not insignificant contributions to the development of our craft from a huge variety of perspectives. From the last few years i would (off the top of my head) single out Naomi Pinnock, Aaron Cassidy, Dai Fujikura, Maja Ratkje, Jakob Ullmann, Laurence Crane, Liza Lim, Jonty Harrison, Peter Ablinger, Wieland Hoban, Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen, Eliane Radigue, Monty Adkins, Hèctor Parra, Chiyoko Szlavnics and, yes, even Jürg Frey who, unlike Clark, i would—and did—recognise when i saw him.

Are these composers great? i can only find myself wondering whether that question is even remotely relevant. Certainly, some of those i’ve just named i regard as among the most compelling composers working today. But the very fact that i named so many of them (and that list is absurdly short) underlines the fact that there is a very great deal of fantastic, significant, far-reaching and long-lasting music being composed today, and while i don’t necessarily want to equate ideas of greatness with elitism, seeking to apply the word ‘great’ inevitably starts to limit the field and, thereby, limit the music. For me, and i suspect for many others, both composers and audiences, what’s more to be celebrated is the diversity of angles from which musical expression now comes and the concomitant multiplicity of compositional triumphs. Composers don’t face, as Clark contends, an “existential crisis”; composers are doing what they’ve always done, navigating their own way forward both with regard to their own development and to wider threads of compositional (and extra-musical) thought. Some may find this diversity disorienting or even disheartening, but to my mind it’s that very diversity that i consider to be genuinely ‘great’. This is surely more meaningful than the kind of nostalgic wistfulness that yearns to slap the epithet on one or two figures for special lionisation. Let’s leave that to the publishers, and let’s all remember not to believe a word of it.

Proms 2015: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks for all of your votes on this year’s Proms premières. Having closed the polls yesterday, i’ve crunched the numbers a few different ways and here’s a summary of what you, my esteemed readers, had to say about this year’s offerings.
Read more

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Proms 2014: the premières – how you voted

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Having closed the 5:4 polls last week, it’s time once again to assess how you voted on each of the 21 premières at this year’s Proms. Having pulled around and crunched the numbers from various angles, here’s a brief summary of what emerged.


Worst New Work

Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace

Yes, exactly. Hands up who thinks that cheap imitations of sounds and gestures from assorted religions will, when idly thrown together, suddenly make everyone realise how silly they’ve been with their endless conflicts and all just get along? Oh put your hand down, Roxanna, you’re just being stupid.

Runners Up

Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory
Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise
Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’

It’s easy to sympathise with the first two of these; neither Dove nor Ranjbaran even approximated an original thought in their respective works—and Dove’s offering is particularly egregious as it masquerades under a phony veneer of nobility, claiming with utter futility to be ‘about’ the theory of its title, a bare-faced lie that would deserve some righteous anger if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious. As for the Prokofiev, i’m still in two minds about it; it’s certainly hobbled by those weak first two movements, but there was some powerful stuff in the latter two.


Best New Work

Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes

For me, it was a toss-up between the Holt and Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor (which narrowly missed out on being a runner up), so this is a result well worth endorsing. On the one hand, there’s a sense that Simon Holt has had more than his fair share of performance opportunities at the Proms—yet, the consistency of his wonderful compositional imagination makes one feel a bit churlish for mentioning it.

Runners Up

Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser
John Tavener – Requiem Fragments
Haukur Tómasson – Magma

A good year for the Scandinavians! Magma was a sensation of free-form but entirely organic material, while Voice verser brought a delirious sense of unhinged expressivity rarely heard at the Proms. As for the Tavener, my preference would have been for Gnōsis; but maybe you heard something in the Requiem Fragments that i didn’t, or were at least more convinced by its jump-cut approach to religious text and sentiment.


Thanks to all of you who voted, it’s fascinating for me to see how you react to these pieces. Opinions seemed less polarised than in previous years, with more works meriting ‘Meh’ votes—for what it’s worth, the piece towards which you felt most indifferent was Judith Weir’s Day Break Shadows Flee, and who can blame you? Perhaps that overall response suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the quality of this year’s premières, and if it does, then i can only agree; there were some undeniably fabulous new works, but what the Proms seems to be crying out for is a revivified engagement with new music that’s rooted in a genuine sense of intrepid exploration: bold, ingenious and daring. The BBC have conclusively proved this year how much they lack this quality; one can only hope that the opposite turns out to be true of the new director of the Proms, whomever that may be.

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Hope without hope: Mark-Anthony Turnage – L’espoir (from Speranza, World Première)

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There’s an interesting small addendum to be made to my article a couple of days ago, reviewing recent CDs. i commented that LSO Live has released the world première performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s large-scale orchestral work Speranza, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. However, what the disc doesn’t contain is the entirety of the piece as heard on that first occasion. Anyone in the concert hall or who (like me) heard the live broadcast may be forgiven for feeling some dismay at discovering one of the most curious but lovely parts of the piece to be entirely absent from the CD release. Turnage initially conceived Speranza in five movements, each titled with the word ‘hope’ in different languages, and it’s the original fourth movement, L’espoir, which he appears to have decided to excise from the work. Considering the pair of interviews i’ve heard where Turnage discusses Speranza, one could perhaps have seen this coming; on both occasions (once prior to the performance, the other on the BBC’s The Strand Archive), Turnage’s description of the five movements rather skirts over the fourth, almost apologising for it, both in terms of compositional individuality—with reference to the use of borrowed melodies, which Turnage states “I did nothing to actually”—and also aesthetic, essentially dismissing it as “a real moody piece … more of a textural piece, which is unusual for me, just chords and rather desolate tunes”. Read more

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Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

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Now that a fortnight has passed since the deafening broohaha of the Last Night, it’s time to look at how you, esteemed readers, have voted in the 5:4 Proms polls. 545 votes were cast this year, and having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought. Read more

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Classical music: a game of tags

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i was ruefully amused yesterday to read an article by one of my esteemed blogospherical brothers-in-arms, Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Tim was bewailing his experiences of the use—or, more accurately, misuse—of tags applied to works of a classical persuasion on Spotify. On the one hand, i use Spotify so rarely that i haven’t experienced Tim’s particular problem; yet the usage and abusage of audio file tags has been a bête noire of mine for the best part of a decade. For those unclear as to what all this is about, tags are simply the assorted fields of data that contain the various attributes of an audio file, chiefly the artist, and the titles of the track and album from which it comes, but also an extensive range of additional fields, such as the track/disc number, the year of release, the genre, and many more. All of these tags can be edited by the listener within whatever program they use for digital music; and this is just as well, as while tags are pre-populated in digital downloads, and there exists a number of online services that automatically supply the tag information whenever a CD is put into the computer, almost without fail, in both cases, there are errors aplenty.

For more populist musical idioms, the information that should be contained in these tags is completely straightforward; the artist, track titles, album title, etc. are all clear and present no real issues. But Tim’s right to flag up the fact that in the realm of classical fare, what should be put in these tags is often a matter of debate and personal judgement, and without some thought and care, can become entirely meaningless. The first issue it raises is that of the distinction between an ‘artist’ and a ‘composer’. The Artist tag is one of the most important in audio software, while the Composer is there as an optional extra. (Last.fm, the website that collates and lists everything one has listened to, only pays attention to the Artist tag, which demonstrates how secondary the Composer tag really is.) In pop music, the audience focuses on the artist while the composer may not even be known. So Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, for example, will obviously have Kylie tagged as the Artist, while the composers of the song, Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis, can be tagged as the composers—but, it could be reasonably asked, why would you bother, apart from for the sake of completeness?

Classical music, though, is different. Take Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: Mahler is obviously the composer and could be tagged as such, but what to put in the Artist tag is where the debate begins. Some would say that this is where the orchestra/conductor should be shown, but i have never agreed with this. Perhaps i’m biased due to being a composer myself, but i have always felt that the composer should be tagged as the Artist. They created the work, they are famous for having created that work, they (one hopes) are the one whose name is emblazoned most prominently on the accompanying artwork. It’s not irrelevant that the symphony is being performed by the CBSO, LSO or whoever, but it’s of secondary importance, just as the composer of a pop song is (in this context) secondary. If this approach is not taken, then the composer’s name needs to be included in each track title, which convolutes the tagging process and invites a veritable host of problems with regard to what should go in the Artist tag: does the orchestra name go first, then the conductor? what punctuation between them? is the orchestra name abbreviated? are soloists mentioned too? It’s ridiculous to take this approach, but the practice is surprisingly common, and seems to have afflicted the music Tim was attempting to navigate (the Artist field isn’t visible in his screenshot, so it’s impossible to be sure).

But the main problem with which Tim was confronted, and which has always been the most pervasive issue in the tagging of classical music, was to do with the Title tag. Contemporary music, with its self-conscious emphasis on smart-‘n’-snappy titles, often avoids problems in this area, but it’s not immune; multi-movement works, particularly symphonies and the like, require a little more dedication to make them meaningful and useful. It may seem sensible when entering tag data simply to duplicate what appears in the booklet/PDF, but context is everything. To return to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a glance at the booklet yields this:

I. Trauermarsch

If that was used as the Title tag, it would appear one was listening to a work by Mahler called “I. Trauermarsch” which is a little nonsensical, or at least, incomplete. This is precisely what Spotify was offering Tim. Far better to include the name of the work itself in the Title tag as well:

Symphony No. 5 – I. Trauermarsch

Of course, even now there is scope for inconsistencies. Glancing at another recording, the work is titled “Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – should that be included in the Title tag? Furthermore, the same recording lists the first track including its tempo indications:

I. Trauermarsch (In gemessen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt)

Should this be included too? Potentially, the Title tag could become this, which while admittedly rather long and lumbering is perfectly accurate and would be infinitely better than the anonymous scree of meaningless tags used in the Haydn symphonies Tim highlighted:

Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – I. Trauermarsch (In gemessen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt)

What, then, of the orchestras, conductors, et al? How to distinguish between my Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording and the one by Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmoniker? or, for that matter, the transcription of it for the organ played by David Briggs (which is amazing by the way; highly recommended). It’s a personal thing, but i usually incorporate this into the album title: “Symphony No. 5 (Solti)”, although in the organ example i’ve made the Artist “Gustav Mahler (tr. David Briggs)”. That’s a personal choice, and it highlights the fact that there’s always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity and whim involved in the tagging of classical music. But Tim’s point is bang on the money – why does classical music continue to shroud itself in ignorance of the most correct and useful way of using tags? It’s not isolated to Spotify by any means; i’ve experienced the same with downloads from various sources, including the iTunes Store, Presto Classical, NMC Recordings and others who really should know better. So i’d like to echo Tim’s plea that the classical music world—and, just as importantly, its listeners—wake up to the realities of audio tags and finally give them some meaning. Hopefully, pace Tim, its mind will not blow—although, if and when the day finally dawns, mine just might.

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Proms 2012: the premières – how you voted

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Two weeks have passed since the Proms 2012 season came to an end, so today i’ve closed the polls for each of the works premièred this year. This was the first year that i included polls, and in total 615 votes were cast; thanks to all of you who took part. i’ve taken a careful look at the results, and they make for interesting reading; here’s a summary of how you voted.


Worst New Work

Bob Chilcott – The Angry Planet

69% of readers reacted negatively to this piece, rising to 85% if we include those who could muster only a “meh” in response. It’s understandable really; Bob Chilcott’s considerable abilities did him no favours in this vapid anthology of sentiment. The work’s message—both in terms of words and music—is stale and unconvincing, barely rising to the level of a mere divertissement. It’s hard to tell whether composer and librettist were trying too hard or not hard enough, but either way, it falls woefully short of its elevated aspirations.

Runners up

Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger
Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges

Eric Whitacre’s full-fat musical confectionary has a proven tendency to distract listeners from its inadequacies, so i was surprised to see that so many 5:4 readers shared my view about his Olympic tie-in new work. 62% of you didn’t like it, and who can blame you? It looked for a while as though Elaine Agnew’s piece would be voted the worst new work, but it rallied some last-minute support that pushed it into third place. Clearly i wasn’t the only one exasperated by its incessant need for percussive novelty, which turned the piece into an irritating slice of bombast, entirely at odds with its evocative inspiration.


Best New Work

Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7

Per Nørgård’s newest symphony received an overwhelming 91% positive response, which makes for an interesting contrast to the reception of his Sixth Symphony—performed at the Proms ten years ago—which seemed to bamboozle both audiences and critics alike. All the same, Nørgård’s Symphony No. 7 is by no means an ‘easy’ listen (“beautiful and bewildering in equal measure” as i wrote in my review), so it’s heart-warming to see such an uncompromising work meet with such a positive response.

Runners up

Mark Simpson – sparks
Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2

Mark Simpson’s reputation has been given a significant boost by coming up trumps with his Last Night work, which managed to be intricate and unusual while remaining immediate and accessible. Michael Finnissy’s music—so rarely heard in the UK—was both a deeply refreshing experience and also something of a revelation, making abundantly clear just how similar so many British composers sound these days. Finnissy, as he always has, stands alone, sounding absolutely unique. i’ll reassert what i wrote in my review, the hope that Finnissy’s music will be heard much more often on these shores in future, particularly at the Proms.


Speaking personally, i broadly agree with how you voted. i think my own favourite of the premières was Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness was highly impressive too, and Julian Philips’ Sorowfull Songes—which seems to have fallen off the radar of many listeners and critics—and Brian Elias’ Electra Mourns were both surprisingly powerful works. As for the worst, it’s hard to argue with your results, but i’m still staggered by the ineptitude of Emily Howard’s Calculus of the Central Nervous System; mistakes of that magnitude really ought not to be made in public.

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Navigating the sounds of the cosmos

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It’s been with no little excitement that i’ve watched the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars this week. Astronomy has been a back-burner interest of mine since i was a boy and, not surprisingly, i’ve been especially fond of the sound recordings produced by NASA from the data received by Voyagers I and II as they’ve travelled through and beyond the solar system. So i was intrigued last year to see an independent release of something called Voyager: Sounds of the Cosmos, a large-scale compilation of these NASA recordings, made available in three versions of increasing length, titled ‘Grand Tour Edition’, ‘Standard Edition’ and ‘Legacy Edition’ respectively. However, as i’ve spent more time with it, i couldn’t shake the feeling i’d heard these before, so i did some elementary investigating. It turns out—and the compiler, one Philip Graham (aka RazorEye), admits this on the Wikipedia page—that the compilation is a bootleg of earlier NASA releases, some of which are still readily available. However, new track titles have been invented and there’s also a bit of duplicity and misguidedness going on, so for the benefit of others who love these sounds as much as i do, i thought i’d just flag up the facts regarding this material, in order to make an informed choice possible. Read more

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Loving/Collecting Music

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From about the age of 10, i was given £5 pocket money each month. And every month, i would walk to the record shop and buy a new album, which would always cost me £4.99. Since i could only afford one album, i would take a lot of time choosing, looking through perhaps hundreds of LPs before finally deciding. This monthly experience was really exciting for me – all the more so because of the context in which it happened: i had to wait for it, then i had to journey to get it, and finally bring it home – and it took all my money to buy it. i believe there are two qualities that this approach has helped to instill and nurture in me.

The first is to understand the value of the music. i don’t here mean the price; i’m talking about the fact that, for me, it was my once-a-month opportunity to encounter new music, to explore something fresh. Of course, i wanted to do that more often – and i did, regularly raiding my mother’s large record collection – but i had to wait, i had to be patient. And, of course, once the day had arrived, i was so ecstatic finally to own a new album that it meant the world to me. We could perhaps call it a ‘collaboration’: i was granted a new album, but it demanded of me a sacrifice, of my time and of my money. i certainly understood the personal value of the music.

Second, it made me an extremely attentive listener. It would be impossible to go through the experience described above, and then not really care what the music was. So i would sit and focus all my attention on what i was listening to – and i would listen to it over and over again, absorbing it, hearing it afresh, understanding it from more and more angles. The result was that i assimilated the music, it became part of me; i could hear it perfectly clearly in my mind, i would sing it to myself without realising it. And so, overall, i cherished the music, i valued it, i knew it, i understood it, i absorbed it… i loved it. Read more

What’s In A Name? (Part Two)

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In my post Style and Idea: What’s In A Name?, i said that i’d been provoked to consider genres “and more besides”; here, then, is the more. Our determination to classify things – as a means of containing them, thereby reducing them and making them (or so we believe) more “understandable” – extends further, into quite subtle areas. What, for example, is going on in the title of a work? In the world of contemporary art music (for want of a better term), it has become de rigeur for a composition to require some kind of vaguely poetic/pithy title, preferably not a generic one (e.g. “symphony”), to avoid undesirable, often anachronistic, associations. It goes deeper though, and wider; programme notes are typically provided to supplement the title, no doubt seeking to aide the audience further in their engagement of the work. Serving a seemingly different end, the tracks on a CD nonetheless also seek to “contain” a piece (or part thereof) with the same aim of helping to reduce a work to small, “manageable” bits. Let me say immediately that i myself am a part of all this, and have never detracted from it – indeed, the title of my most recent composition, ‘unredeemed’ self-)portrait (in the form of a calf, although abstruse, could be cited as an extreme example of it – but it seems appropriate to question the practice from the perspective of both artist (in terms of intention) and audience (in terms of desire).

During my first degree (a very worrying 11 years ago), i wrote a paper entitled Extra-Musical Facets of the Complete Work of Art, which examined, among other things, the rôle of a title and programme notes, emphasising their importance and value for the artist. This was something of a reaction to seeing composers presenting works with absolutely nothing to say (a fact they seemed to celebrate), which i found deeply irritating. Perhaps i thought that encouraging composers to use these “facets” would cause them, de facto, to have something to say in their work. But i saw the relationship between artist and audience very differently back then, in terms – dare i admit it – of telling the audience what they should be listening to/for in my work. i now wonder whether facets like a title and notes do the work – and the audience – a disservice. Read more

Style and Idea: What’s In A Name?

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A few days ago, i listened to an album described by its label as “ritual ambient”, which i found an intriguing idea for a genre; yesterday, i spent time with another release on the same label, listed as “ceramic IDM”. i’m not sure i can even begin to unpack quite what that description is driving at (can “ceramic” be an adjective in this context?), but it got me reflecting on the nature of musical genres and subgenres, and more besides. i believe the present practice has its origin in four deeply significant developments from the 20th century.

The first is the deeper and more authentic understanding of music from past generations. It’s interesting to reflect that, until the early 20th century, even a composer as significant as Mozart was rarely performed. The increase of scholarship – no doubt aided by the development of easy international travel – brought a huge wave of understanding of earlier musics, and a corollary of that was the classification of discoveries. Prior to this, the musical period from Bach to Beethoven was referred to by the simple term, “classical music”, invented around the 1820s. Now, music of this period was re-classified under the well-known “Baroque” and “Classical” headings, and the century just past was judged to have been a “Romantic” period, all of these in part borrowing from architectural and literary terms. This is the origin of music’s division into genres.

The second, to some extent contemporaneous with the first, is the point of crisis in the development of classical music. When tonality fell apart, composers became similarly fragmented, going in all sorts of directions in the quest for new ways to shape and structure their music. The earliest experiments were given the lame description, “Free Atonal”, before giving way to Schoenberg’s curious invention, “Serialism” (not that he tended to call it that), which, in its extreme form became “Integral Serialism”. But since not everyone wanted their music to be like this, composers seeking to continue strands from Romantic music were branded “Post-Tonal” or “Neo-Romantic”; others, looking to earlier models were “Neo-Classical”. Suddenly, it seemed, there were numerous styles, when hitherto there had been a single, broadly recognisable style that had had considerable momentum. This is the origin of the proliferation of musical styles. Read more