Concerts

Marc Yeats – sturzstrom (World Première)

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate to be in the cool gloom of Beer Quarry Caves, a man-made cave network on the east coast of Devon. The caves themselves—resulting from two millennia of mining, beginning with the Romans—are fascinating enough, but i was there for something almost as remarkable, the world première of sturzstrom, the latest composition by Marc Yeats. Marc’s output is almost mind-bogglingly relentless, & he brings a highly infectious enthusiasm to every project he undertakes. This particular venture was no exception, the first in a series of four commissions under the umbrella title ‘Coastal Voices’, a choral project that “aims to give a new voice to the coastline”; Marc’s response was to create what he calls “a landslide event for voices”:

the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces as perceived by the composer and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. […] The successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and these culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, travelling west to east, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Blindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

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Unsuk Chin – Šu

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As as addendum to my coverage of last year’s Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin (part 1, part 2), here is one of the few remaining pieces from that day, which was only broadcast a few weeks ago. Šu is a concerto for sheng and orchestra, the sheng being one of the most ancient traditional Chinese instruments, dating back over 3,000 years. Comprising a series of pipes played via a mouthpiece, its sound is something like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion; its appearance is like nothing else at all. Alongside the traditional instrument is a keyed version that enables fully chromatic tempered pitches, and it’s for this instrument that Chin composed Šu.

Šu is one of Chin’s most stubbornly enigmatic works; in both structural and material terms, it doesn’t so much develop as flex, passages of great delicacy repeatedly answered by more brutal outbursts. Wisely, Chin assigns the orchestra to a secondary role, allowing the sheng—an instrument that can barely muster a mezzo-forte—to act as both instigator and guide for proceedings. The ‘flexing’ i spoke of results in an episodic music, although Chin takes an audibly different approach in the two halves of the piece. Read more

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Apologies; & forthcoming

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Apologies, one & all, for the lengthy hiatus here on 5:4. In a break with convention, i’ve been finishing off two or three new compositions & then—entirely in keeping with recent convention—fighting off a rather stubborn virus. Before service resumes properly, then, let me flag up a couple of performances of these new pieces that are happening next month, both at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The first is nolite facere dicunt enim, a work for 12 voices written for the vocal group Icarus, based at the Conservatoire. The group, which changes membership each year, is the brainchild of Chi Hoe Mak, one of the most wonderfully effervescent conductors i’ve ever met. It’s not a piece i want to say anything about at this stage, but you can take a look at the full score below. The first performance will be taking place on Wednesday 6 June; the concert starts at 7.30pm & tickets (undoubtedly very cheap) will be available on the door. Do come along & be shocked, appalled, enriched &/or entertained by it if you can.

EDIT: Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, this performance has been postponed.

Second is a work for voice & five players called the octave of the grief of the clone that leapt to the remainder of night sky; that title is taken from the writings of one of my ongoing inspirations, Kenji Siratori, as is the sung text, which uses Siratori’s poem Foolish/Moon. It’s not possible to show a score for this piece, as there isn’t one; the five players—clarinet, bassoon, viola, double bass & guitar—are all independent of each other & of the vocalist, although a couple of the players interact & affect the ensemble in different ways. This piece was written for the soprano Ruth Hopkins, who will be performing the piece with members of the ensemble Thumb, also based at the Conservatoire. The concert is on Monday 11 June, starting at 8pm; there may be a performance in Camden later in the year, but more about that as & when. Again, if you’re in the area, do come along.

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Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

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Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler and more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings and natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, and then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry and (in the best sense) aimless, its twists and swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, and she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, and a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion: Acrostic-Wordplay, Double Concerto, Gougalōn (UK Première) & Rocanā

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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Interrobang – works by Elliott Carter, Paul Dolden, Javier Álvarez & more

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Anyone in the Birmingham area tomorrow night (Monday 13th) might be interested in the next concert my ensemble, Interrobang, is giving. The concert will feature a number of works by established composers, intermingled with four pieces by students and graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire (where Interrobang is based). It includes a new work of my own, composed for BCMG at the end of the last year and explored in a workshop with them in the spring, but not yet performed in public. Here’s the programme:

Etelka Nyilasi – Visions in the Northern Sky for 6 players
Simon Cummings – Intense quick dream of sentimental groups with people of all possible characters amidst all possible appearances for string sextet (World Première)
Ryan Latimer – The Canon of Medicine for piano trio (World Première)
Elliott Carter – Scrivo in Vento for solo flute
Paul Dolden – In a Bed Where the Moon was Sweating. Resonance #1 for clarinet & tape (UK Première)
Veleka Algar – From Silence for string sextet (World Première)
Javier Álvarez – Temazcal for maracas & tape

The concert starts at 7.30pm and once again takes place in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall. A map is below; those with GPS should punch in the postcode B3 3HG. If any 5:4 readers are present, do make yourselves known to me during the interval or afterward—would be great to see you!


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The Irrepressibles – St Martin’s in the Bullring, Birmingham

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i can’t let the week come to an end without making some comment about a concert i attended last Wednesday in Birmingham. Hosted by the church of St Martin’s in the Bullring—finally getting itself really sorted as a top-notch concert venue (my ensemble Interrobang performed there back in May)—it was the second in a short series of gigs given by the remarkable group The Irrepressibles, whose debut release Mirror Mirror has been jangling around in the 5:4 jukebox for most of this year.

The prospect of support acts always sets me on edge; many’s the time my eager anticipation for a concert has been dissipated by a support act unworthy of or unsuited to the occasion. Not so in the case of Thomas Truax, one of outsider music’s more ingenious and genuinely entertaining figures, every bit as irrepressible as the headline act. He brought a cluster of his trademark handmades, including ‘Mother Teresa’ (replete with “removable limbs”), the off-kilter rhythmic patter of which lends Truax’s songs a wonderfully unbalanced quality, and perhaps his most famous accoutrement, the ‘Hornicator’, a cross between a brass instrument and a gramophone horn, which Truax sang through and percussively struck with gusto Read more

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