Concerts

Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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Electric Spring 2018

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Huddersfield is supremely talented at providing distractions (and shelter) from the vicissitudes of winter: HCMF does the honours at the start of the season, in late November, whereas at the other end, in late February, it falls to the university’s annual five-day festival of “electronic sonic exploration”, Electric Spring.

There are various reasons why over the last few years i’ve grown to love Electric Spring. First, it’s the mix of familiar and – most often – unfamiliar names: at most festivals one encounters the same composers again and again, and it’s exciting to have minimal use for one’s expectations. Second, it’s a festival that’s prepared to take big risks: of course, they don’t always work, but its preparedness to go places and try things fearlessly is so admirable, and whichever way the results go, they’re often spectacular. Third, i’ve rarely encountered such inordinate attention to detail in concert giving: everything from the sound system – based around HISS, the ultimate wet dream for surround sound enthusiasts – to the lighting to the stage presentation and everything else is always carefully considered and clearly matters enormously to everyone involved in putting the festival on. And fourth, which only makes my third reason more remarkable, all of the concerts are free, making Electric Spring, besides all else, an amazing act of generosity. Read more

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Electric Spring/Ambient@40

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A quick, last-minute heads-up about Huddersfield University’s annual blow-out celebrating all things electronic, Electric Spring, which starts this evening and runs until Sunday. This year’s programme is typically diverse: Philip Thomas and Colin Frank will be performing works for piano, percussion and electronics, Freida Abtan will present a 21-minute audiovisual work “inspired by the logic of dream narrative”, while Rodrigo Costanzo, Brian Crabtree and Angela Guyton will explore improvised pieces, some of which involve dynamic lighting and video. The concerts are once again supplemented with opening acts, from Aaron Cassidy, Sam Gillies, Katy Gray and Owen Green, plus a couple of late-evening shindigs from the BaconJam collective and Sebastien Lavoie. As usual, it’s a mix of names i know and plenty i don’t, so it promises to be an exciting and unpredictable adventure. All concerts are free, and start at 7:30pm in Phipps Hall, in the Creative Arts Building. Full details on the Electric Spring website.

The Saturday evening concert ties in with the Ambient@40 conference, which runs from Friday to Saturday. The conference promises to be a fascinating investigation, with a multifaceted collection of papers and performances exploring ambient from aesthetic, strategic, influential and many other angles, topped off with a keynote from none other than Ocean of Sound author and Brian Eno collaborator David Toop. The Saturday evening concert features a variety of music connected in different ways to ambient, by Robert Mackay, Rupert Till, Kristina Wolfe, Szafranski duo, Tim Howle and myself. i’ll be presenting new live versions of two of my indeterminate works, February 12, 2013, which has not been heard before, and February 24, 2013, originally created for the Imperfect Forms Kenneth Kirschner ebook project. The full programme for the conference, including abstracts for all the papers and presentations, can be viewed on the Ambient@40 website.

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Town Hall, Birmingham: Celebrating Carter

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i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.

In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work. Read more

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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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