Concerts

LCMF 2014: The Music of Bernard Parmegiani

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Festivals acquire a significant part of their character from geographical context, & London Contemporary Music Festival could hardly have picked a better location for their three-day exploration of the music of Bernard Parmegiani. Second Home, a new performance space in Shoreditch, is just off the road—& thereby infused with the smells & atmosphere—from Brick Lane, a perfect environment for Parmegiani’s music, laden with its own unique blend of spice, heat & fragrance. Parmegiani’s death late last year was more than just a profound blow to fans of acousmatic music, it was a better-late-than-never wake-up call to the realisation that the entire world of electronic music, in all its multiplicitous guises, had lost one of its most forward-looking practitioners, blessed with a combination of imaginative & technical skill largely unmatched by his contemporaries (& many of his successors). That wouldn’t sound like such a bold statement if more people were aware of the astonishments to be found in Parmegiani’s music. Hot on the heels of BEAST’s celebration last month, LCMF have provided considerable additional momentum to the urgency for an in-depth re-appreciation & appraisal of Parmegiani’s output, an appraisal that surely cannot fail to reveal him as a compositional pillar of the twentieth century, & perhaps electronic music’s most radical visionary to date. Read more

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The Start of an Era: Bristol New Music 2014

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Ordinarily, finding yourself traipsing along cold, dark, damp streets from concert to concert of cutting edge music, you’d expect the time to be late autumn & the place to be Huddersfield. Except this time it was the streets & venues of Bristol that were the focus of attention, for the inaugural Bristol New Music festival, three days packed with an impressively diverse line-up of the great & the downright remarkable. Bigging it up last week, i opined that it looked all set to become the HCMF of the south west, & there is, as it turns out, a connection, as Huddersfield supremo Graham McKenzie has provided what he described to me as “curatorial advice” in getting BNM up & running. Yet while in some ways his fingerprints could be detected all over the weekend, Bristol had an atmosphere & a vibe quite distinct to that of Huddersfield. It’s not insignificant, i think, that the word ‘new’ has been used in favour of ‘contemporary’, the latter carrying with it stronger connotations of the concert hall. BNM did have plenty of concerts taking place in familiar concert halls—the festival is, after all, a collaboration by five of Bristol’s principal venues: Arnolfini, the Colston Hall, St George’s, Spike Island & Bristol University—but more often than not, they either weren’t presented as, or didn’t feel like, familiar concert hall events. Often this was rather refreshing; sometimes, not so much.

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

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The spring concert calendar is starting to fill up with some real delights, with three forthcoming festivals being particularly mouth-watering. The most imminent is Bristol New Music, occupying a long weekend beginning this Friday. In many ways, BNM looks set to be a kind of HCMF for the south-west. Ensemble musikFabrik will be presenting Harry Partch‘s rarely-heard And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, using recreated versions of Partch’s home-made microtonal instruments, in addition to ‘interpretations’ of Frank Zappa. There are also major new works from John Butcher, Keith Tippett, Christian Marclay & Christian Wallumrød, the Bristol Ensemble performing works by Tansy Davies & Matthew Schlomowitz, as well as concerts by clarinettist Gareth Davis, Roly Porter & the wonderful Ellen Fullman. Throw in Quatuor Bozzini with a première by Claudia Molitor & a cluster of installations, & you’ve got the makings of a seriously exciting three days of music. Full details can be found here, & there are some tasty savings to be had if you go for the day passes.

At the end of next month—serendipitously placed so soon after the recent Pioneers of Sound festival in Birmingham—is London Contemporary Music Festival‘s three-evening celebration of the undisputed big daddy of acousmatic music, Bernard Parmegiani. Each evening is jam-packed with Parmegiani goodness—including documentary films alongside the music—with diffusion coming from such luminaries as Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison & Daniel Teruggi, & there will be live sets from Rashad Becker & Florian Hecker. Considering how exhilarating these concerts are going to be, the tickets are wonderfully inexpensive (a weekend pass will set you back a mere £20); details here.

Yet another weekend of sonic glory is coming in early May with the 2014 Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. They certainly seem to be ramping up both the diversity & the ambition, promising no fewer than nine world premières, from the likes of John Oswald, Michael Finnissy, Georg Friedrich Haas, Christian Wolff, Richard Youngs & James Clapperton. This year, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will find itself rubbing shoulders with, among others, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, vocal group EXAUDI & the Icelandic collective S.L.Á.T.U.R.. Details have only begun to emerge in the last few days; everything you need to know can be found here, & if you fancy a jaunt to Reykjavík in April (no?), then details of the Icelandic Tectonics Festival—with special focus on Alvin Lucier—can be found here.

All being well, i’ll be at all the above (possibly not Reykjavík), doing my best to navigate through & report back on the proceedings. Despite Britain’s interminably awful weather at the moment, in the concert halls at least 2014 has a decidedly sunny outlook.

An acousmatic revelation: BEAST – Pioneers of Sound, Birmingham

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Last weekend Birmingham was treated to what will surely be regarded as one of the highlights of the 2014 electronic music calendar. Presented by Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), Pioneers of Sound was a 3-day festival primarily exploring works by three of the central figures of acousmatic music, François Bayle, Francis Dhomont & Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special & so poignant was that only two of that triumvirate could be there to present their music; the absence of Parmegiani (who died last November at the age of 86) was conspicuous & keenly felt throughout the weekend.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – John Zorn day

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How do you solve a problem like John Zorn? How do you reconcile the disparate works of a composer equally at home in the worlds of (among others) free jazz, avant garde experimentalism, choral, noise rock, easy listening & hardcore, & whose music moves freely, even wilfully, between these worlds at whim? That, i imagine, is the question that many have found themselves asking when confronted (& it often is a confrontation) with Zorn’s music. But, surely, the question ought to be: why are not more composers interested in drawing on such a multiplicity of styles & manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, & i say this both as a composer & as a listener—hell, & simply as a human being—to be daunted & intimated by the work of John Zorn. It’s not just the variety that’s impressive, it’s the fecundity: Zorn spills out new works out a rate that’s difficult to keep up with. Personally, i always have suspicions with composers who produce at this kind of rate; “Milhaud syndrome” we could call it, & it isn’t hard to find contemporary examples, where the emphasis in their work is entirely tilted towards activity rather than achievement.

On the one hand, i don’t believe at all that Zorn is someone in whom that syndrome manifests itself; i’m familiar with a lot of his work, & some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus & the string quartets Memento Mori & The Dead Man—ranks among my favourite examples of chamber music. On the other hand, there were numerous occasions throughout the entire day devoted to him yesterday at HCMF (in celebration of his 60th birthday) when i found myself once again being challenged at making sense of the apparent incongruities, volte-faces, non sequiturs, leftfield asides & possibly even red herrings that continually rear up. Not so with The Book of Heads, a compendium of 35 etudes for solo guitar, which are so wonderfully unconventional that a regularly strummed chord would have seemed like the most ludicrous gesture imaginable. James Moore—congenial & light-hearted, entirely the right kind of personality to take on these pieces—performed 26 of them, his collection of guitars expanded by an assortment of small balloons, nail files, bowls, a rug, some bottles & a doll, plus a cluster of pedals & devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written & graphic instructions—which is simultaneously highly specific while also allowing the performer a considerable amount of latitude. All relatively short, they nonetheless encapsulate Zorn’s multifaceted soundworld: madcap gestures, allusions, evocations & quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework.

The piece that began the afternoon concert, Steppenwolf for solo clarinet, shed more light on the nature of Zorn’s music. Zorn is first & foremost a performer, & there are times in his work when the material is more interesting from the perspective of being played than being heard. Steppenwolf is just such a piece, little more than a fairly humdrum study in arpeggiation. This focus on the performer, or more specifically on one performer, recurred in a different way through several of the following pieces. The sense of a hauptstimme seems to be of importance to Zorn; in Occam’s Razor, a work for cello & piano that seamlessly integrates wild hand-smashing into bursts of lyricism, & ensemble works The Tempest & Baudelaire, one was always aware that, at any given moment, one voice predominated; it may be the fastest-moving hauptstimme in all music, passed from instrument to instrument at great speed, but not so fast that it couldn’t be grasped. Walpurgisnacht, a work for string trio inspired by the witchfest held on the eve of May Day, was an embarrassment of riches in this respect, the players clearly revelling in music that is obviously immense fun to play. Baudelaire (a counterpart to Zorn’s 2012 Rimbaud) was conspicuous by its intense complexity; only repeated listenings could even begin to peel apart & make sense of its extremely elaborate material. The Tempest, however, was more direct, romping through a cavalcade of allusive episodes, taking in jazz trios, abstruse duos (with shifting relationships) & a faux-Tudor morsel of pastiche; flautist Claire Chase made a strong impression here, ideally suited to music of such drama.

At the start i spoke of the challenge of reconciliation in John Zorn’s music; this concert—& The Tempest in particular—demonstrated that what unites it all, the common ground in every Zorn composition, is that he is never ever precious with material. It’s stuff to be played with, moulded, mucked about with & discarded when necessary without any fuss. Furthermore, that stuff can be made from nothing or fashioned from memories, offcuts &/or re-creations of extant materials, & treated in exactly the same way, juxtaposed according both to Zorn’s innate impulses & the inherent suggestions of those materials themselves. Such an utterly non-prissy attitude is disarming but very refreshing—&, to return to an earlier point, intimidating. When the Arditti Quartet performed the highly variegated piece The Alchemist in the evening concert, the work’s sheer imaginative range was so overwhelming that it was tempting to dismiss it as a hodgepodge, a kind of scrapbook of elements, but that’s more a consequence of overload than discernment; it’s so very much more than that. Pandora’s Box, receiving its UK première, is not so different. With the addition of a soprano (performed here by the incomparable Sarah Maria Sun, surely one of the most thrilling of all singers involved in contemporary music), the intensity of the singer’s delivery was sometimes all that stopped the work’s crazed conflictions from entirely derailing itself. That & its astute dramatic sense, pulling us in & pushing us away such that we become riveted to the unfolding narrative, its corresponding music lulling us with utter beauty & then ripping it away.

For me, the most perfect marriage of drama, imagination, complexity & directness came in the late evening concert, devoted to three of Zorn’s recent works for female voices. Performed not by an existing choir but a group of individual singers—i desperately want to call them ‘The Zornettes’—who have come together specifically to bring these pieces to life, their facility with such difficult choral writing at times seemed hard to believe. The three works presented—the European première of Madrigals (completed earlier this year), the UK première of Earthspirit & the Holy Visions cycle—share certain mannerisms. Most prominent is a delightfully playful form of broken arpeggios that sound like a cross between the Swingle Singers & 80s UK vocal group The Flying Pickets, notes fired back & forth between the singers, demanding perfection both in terms of intonation & rhythm. Often, Zorn allows this material—which might be dismissed as being of secondary importance, music for accompaniment—to play out for some time, perhaps simply because it’s such fun. But when Zorn lets rip, the singers, as one, erupted in sublime orgasmic coruscations, filling the air with such white-hot intensity that it practically burned the ears with molten shimmer. Holy Visions is a trifle more formal, charting a carefully structured journey through a sequence of Latin verses in homage to Hildegard of Bingen, but even in this somewhat ritualised context, the lightness & sense of carefree abandon heard earlier persisted as an omnipresent undertone, occasionally spilling onto the surface & causing the text to splash out as whispers, speech & assorted gasps & exhalations. i stopped writing about most choral music on 5:4 a long time ago simply because it has become so completely stale in this country. If what we heard in our cathedrals & churches up & down the land sounded even remotely like this, then i might never write about anything else.

The day ended with a new part to the Hermetic Organ project, Zorn himself manning the console of the St Paul’s Hall instrument. Dressed in a hoody, his appearance from behind resembled that of a mad monk, not so much playing the organ as riding it, frantically altering combinations, chord clusters & rates of tremulant, turning deep wind stops into hydraulic battering rams that threatened to tear the hall down to its foundations while a chorus of flutes & tiny bells chirruped its demise. It was an astonishing end to a truly mind-boggling day.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – n s m b l

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All good noise reduction filters have an option to invert their output, effectively delivering only the removed audio information, mainly hiss & microscopic blurps, along with thin slivers of the primary audio material, little more than the most anaemic of glimpses, hinting at what lies on the other side. These kind of residua bear a strong resemblance to the music of Jakob Ullmann, whose Son Imaginaire III received its world première in St Paul’s Hall last night. The concert wasn’t just a highlight of my HCMF 2013, it was a highlight of my entire concert-going life. However, my enthusiasm for Ullmann’s work (previously manifested here & here) clearly continues to put me in a minority. The pre-concert talk, which i had fully expected to see packed to the point of standing room only, found half of the seats empty, & the concert itself, although better attended, had many seats to spare. Even in Huddersfield, it seems, audiences still have a thing or two to learn.

Having said that, perhaps even Ullmann would consider disinterest a step in the right direction from the outright hostility that has dogged his work in the past. Son Imaginaire III is a case in point; last night’s performance was the third attempt to give the piece a successful première, the previous two being mocked & laughed to the point of being abandoned. The bone of contention in Ullmann’s work is its challenging modus operandi, utilising extremely quiet sounds as the basis for large-scale forms. In some ways, this can be heard as a continuation (or elaboration) of the paradigm shift initiated by John Cage in 4’33″. In that piece, no sound was capable of being extraneous; in Ullmann’s music, any quiet peripheral sounds can be inferred as part of the deliberate musical act taking place: a chair squeak, a muffled cough, a phone vibration, a gust of wind against the windows, they all become plausible components of Ullmann’s loose-weave texture. They, too, are incapable of being extraneous.

But i don’t want to push that connection too far; there is, after all, a world of difference between silence & near silence. The title is instructive—suggesting both “imagined sound” & “his imagination”—as it describes very literally the effect of listening in such a rarefied context as this. The strain of having to listen out for exceptionally quiet sounds makes it all too easy for the imagination to overclock itself, so to speak, to the point where, in such a liminal state, it’s possible to imagine things that aren’t there. It reminds me of the film Paranormal Activity, where lengthy scenes take place in which, essentially, nothing happens, but there are omnipresent omens suggesting that, at some point soon, something very odd indeed will take place. Our eyes scour the frame—the door, the bed, the floor, the corridor, the sleeping couple—fuelled by a heightened mix of excitement & expectation; & here, too, one can all too easily imagine things that are not there. Did the blanket move? Is that a shadow? Did something rustle? Transpose that to the concert hall: Did the cello play a harmonic? Is that the sound of wind through the instrument? Was that a twang on the piano? Often, they’re questions impossible to answer; Ullmann’s music is so perfectly poised at the cusp of sensibility that the space becomes positively electrified with sonic potentialities, real & imagined.

It’s a considerable challenge as much for the performers as the audience; French group n s m b l (10 points if you can say that out loud) handled it with admirable coolness, & can now bask in the renown of being the first ensemble in almost a quarter of a century to have been able to bring this remarkable piece to fruition. Those of you who weren’t there, you have no idea what you missed.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Quatuor Diotima / edges ensemble

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St Paul’s Hall saw the UK première of no less than two major works last night: one, a large-scale cycle, the other, a full-blown epic. i want to discuss them together, not because they are in any way connected, but because hearing them one after the other brought about interesting contradictions & correlations, which fed into one’s appreciation of both works.

First was Alberto Posadas‘ 70-minute Sombras (Shadows), completed in 2012, which comprises five works, three for ensemble plus a pair of shorter ‘Transitions’ for duos. Before getting into the music, something about the concert presentation. Since the inspiration & recurring theme of Posadas’ cycle is shadows, it would have helped considerably if the strange current policy of keeping the house lights on throughout the concert had not been adhered to; as it was, our imaginations had to work that bit harder to buy into the dark allusions of the music. Giving us the sung texts would also have been nice, but you can’t ask for everything. For this UK première, Quatuor Diotima were joined by soprano Sarah Maria Sun & clarinettist Carl Rosman. Initially, though, just the quartet was involved, performing Elogio de las sombras (Praise of the shadows). This is easily one of the very best string quartets i’ve heard in recent years, incredibly demanding on the players but packed with more than the usual amount of imaginative bandwidth. One has to feel a certain sympathy for cellist Pierre Morlet; not only did one of his strings snap just a few minutes in, but then the assortment of little wedges & mutes required later all began to cascade onto the floor; & then he began stifling a coughing fit. If anyone wanted a demonstration of maintaining focus in the face of adversity, this was it. Although Posadas’ inspiration is shadows, what he hasn’t done is compose obviously ‘dark’ music, but instead, throughout the cycle, has sought to tease out connotations of what shadows can be. His accompanying notes generously seek to dive deeply into this thought process, but what i found especially striking was how unnecessary they seemed, the music leaping off the page with absolute coherence. The quartet continually finds itself in unexpected new avenues & alleys, but there was an abiding logic guiding the decidedly non-linear path. Only once the soprano joined in (for La tentación de las sombras (The temptation of the shadows)) did the music start to become demonstrably umbral, but even then Posadas keeps his textures extremely detailed, full of activity & filigree.

Dealing with this is part of the contradiction that occupied the evening. Detail is a keyword where Sombras is concerned, but Posadas seems to have a knack for making it accessible. If anything, one found oneself sitting on the surface of the music, so to speak, which isn’t ordinarily where i would like to sit (at least, not all the time), but being carried along on it like this seemed to make that sense of logic i spoke of complete. Sense was in part kept at a distance anyway, due to not having the text, but i think we got the gist. However, this aural vantage point didn’t suit the closing work, Del reflejo de la sombra (Of the reflection of shadow), which explored far more convoluted, condensed material. Here, the music became genuinely difficult to process, but that may well have been part of Posadas’ point; certainly, the range of angles from which he approaches the notion of shadow is much greater in this piece, which perhaps accounts for the increased density of its music.

The concert that followed, a performance by edges ensemble of Antoine Beuger‘s four-hour en una noche oscura, could not have been more different. It is a complete setting of the poem with which St John of the Cross prefaces his famous book Ascent of Mount Carmel, each of the eight stanzas occupying a 30-minute block of time. The words, sung by Irene Kurka, are delivered in halting syllables, preceded & accompanied by single, sporadic, sustained pitches from other members of the ensemble (E-bowed guitar, melodica, clarinet, cello, flute, accordion & chamber organ). Here, in contrast to Posadas, the narrow behavioural & sonic palette theoretically meant one could dive more fully into the material. Yet music of this sort—static & utmost solemn—has a way of chastising any & all attempts to probe its intricacies. “What process is guiding when & what the players are doing?”, “Is the clarinet consistently a semitone away from the soprano?”, “Is there a pattern connecting the diverse pitches we’re hearing?”, “Is the structure consistently i) ensemble alone, ii) soprano & ensemble, iii) soprano alone?”, “Does the melodica player realise that nothing she’s playing can be heard by anyone?”—these are just some of the questions that emerged throughout the performance, & all of them felt batted away as soon as they appeared. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of time & aural space to find answers, just that they instantly seemed entirely irrelevant.

The narrative, St John of the Cross’ imagery—echoing the Song of Songs—of an approaching, deeply erotic encounter, became overwhelmingly powerful delivered in this way. As with anything on this scale, there were times when one’s patience fluctuated (for me, during the third & sixth stanzas, probably due to their symmetric proximities to start & end), but overall it obtained a palpable sense of building excitement, even momentum. It’s so many years since i read St John of the Cross that i couldn’t recall the poem’s trajectory, & not reading ahead on this occasion sealed the experience. By the close of the penultimate stanza, the Lover & Beloved just beginning to become tactile, the pent-up pressure felt almost explosive. Beuger’s decision to begin the final stanza with a very long silence was a masterstroke, causing that pressure to sublimate into something even more indescribable (a kind of tantric ecstasy, perhaps); the closing quarter of an hour, consisting solely of Irene Kurka slowly intoning the syllables of the last stanza, are among the most remarkable musical experiences i’ve ever had—desperately you wanted her to hurry up, yet equally you wanted her to linger over each phoneme forever.

What these works share, although exercised in profoundly different ways, is a kind of relentlessness, an unstoppable force that in both cases seems to make penetrative listening neither feasible not desirable. That’s not just a testament to their allusive potency, but to their modes of narrative which are, in Posadas’ case, immediate, & in Beuger’s case, other-worldly. It goes without saying that they require far more than the usual level of commitment, & all involved deserve nothing but the highest praise for giving such transparent, authoritative performances.

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