Concerts

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 and Christian Wallumrød, the Bristol Ensemble performing works by Tansy Davies and Matthew Schlomowitz, as well as concerts by clarinettist Gareth Davis, Roly Porter and the wonderful Ellen Fullman. Throw in Quatuor Bozzini with a première by Claudia Molitor and a cluster of installations, and you’ve got the makings of a seriously exciting three days of music. Full details can be found here, and 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 and Daniel Teruggi, and there will be live sets from Rashad Becker and 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 and the ambition, promising no fewer than nine world premières, from the likes of John Oswald, Michael Finnissy, Georg Friedrich Haas, Christian Wolff, Richard Youngs and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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 and Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special and 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 and keenly felt throughout the weekend. Read more

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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 and hardcore, and 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 (and 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 and manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, and i say this both as a composer and as a listener—hell, and simply as a human being—to be daunted and 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, and 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, and some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus and the string quartets Memento Mori and 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 and 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 and 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 and a doll, plus a cluster of pedals and devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written and 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 and quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework. Read more

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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 and 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 and 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, and 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. Read more

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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 and 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 and 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 and 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. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra and Mauro Lanza and a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, and Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long. Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention and result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause and effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried and tested (and tired) ideas. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Shorts

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There’s a curious phenomenon that seems to strike people the longer they spend at HCMF: a cross between regret and guilt at the events they’re not attending. i periodically suffer from it myself, and never more so than on their annual ‘Shorts’ day, which took place yesterday. Fifteen small- and mid-scale concerts, containing 38 pieces, in total lasting around 13 hours—it would take a certain kind of person to go to everything, and i have to confess i’m not that kind, so i experienced what we might call “the HCMF qualm”, my conscience nagging me at the music i didn’t hear and which may well have turned out to be brilliant.

However, i did get to nine concerts, and a thoroughly mixed bag they were. The first thing to say is that it’s an incredible treat to be able to hear such a diverse selection of music as this, and the performance standard throughout the day ranged from highly competent to downright dazzling. The compositional standard was rather more variable, and almost every concert had its share of flops (the worst that i experienced being Jonathan Cole’s butt-clenchingly tedious saxophone quartet Menhir, which the otherwise talented Fukio Ensemble could do nothing to save). There were plenty of moments of magic, however: the wonderfully delicious conclusion to Kerry Andrew‘s anthem O lux beata Trinitas, the disorienting division between fragrance and grind in Rose Dodd‘s electroacoustic Aandacht, some sensitively-judged interaction between organ and electronics in Huw Morgan‘s The Unseeing Eye at the Lung’s Heart and a fascinating sonic network of relationships between clarinet and string trio in Dai Fujikura‘s Halcyon. Read more

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