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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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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 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.

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, but 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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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 & 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, & the titles of the track & 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, & many more. All of these tags can be edited by the listener within whatever program they use for digital music; & this is just as well, as while tags are pre-populated in digital downloads, & 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 & personal judgement, & without some thought & care, can become entirely meaningless. The first issue it raises is that of the distinction between an ‘artist’ & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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, & 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, & 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 & the like, require a little more dedication to make them meaningful & 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 & lumbering is perfectly accurate & 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 & 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, & it highlights the fact that there’s always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity & 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 & 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 & others who really should know better. So i’d like to echo Tim’s plea that the classical music world—&, just as importantly, its listeners—wake up to the realities of audio tags & finally give them some meaning. Hopefully, pace Tim, its mind will not blow—although, if & when the day finally dawns, mine just might.

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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 &, not surprisingly, i’ve been especially fond of the sound recordings produced by NASA from the data received by Voyagers I & II as they’ve travelled through & 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’ & ‘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—& the compiler, one Philip Graham, 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 & there’s also a bit of duplicity & 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