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: BCMG – 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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HCMF 2017: Ensemble Grizzana

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Consider some of the qualities we might associate with the classical notion of holiness: vulnerable but resolute; at odds with easy, quick and cheap enticements in favour of a focus on that which is intangible and transcendent; superficially boring or stupid or quaint yet holding and exhibiting an absolute, unshakeable faith in its convictions. In many ways this is a fitting description of Magnus Granberg‘s How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?, the first of two world premières given by Ensemble Grizzana on the final day of HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. The fact that we were hearing the piece on a Sunday, and in a former church, only added to the sensation. Both works on the programme were based on a pair of pieces of Renaissance music, Déploration sur la mort de Binchois by Johannes Ockeghem and William Byrd’s Oh Lord How Vain. While the material from those pieces wasn’t directly audible in Granberg’s music, one couldn’t help feeling that what we were hearing was, in roughly equal parts, a distillation, a suspension and an explosion of them. Occupying an archetypal steady state, the music emerged (following a lengthy, centering, silence) via a quiet stream of individual sustained sounds, forming a loose-weave texture seemingly encrusted with both jewels and detritus. While it would be true to say that the work was strikingly, stunningly beautiful – easily among the most lovely things i’ve heard at this year’s festival – yet that same beauty (which, it should be stressed, was sometimes far from obvious) is arguably an incidental, happy coincidence, rather than being the thing that defines it. Though exploded in terms of the separation of the instruments and their ideas, the steady state behaviour unified these individual musical actions, making the work’s constituent sounds seem like an analogue for quantum fluctuations, ephemeral particles appearing from nothing, floating in space for a time before vanishing. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Laura Cannell, ICE + Distractfold + Fritz Hauser + Anne Bourne, Mix Tape

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As i’ve indicated previously, the non-partisan diversity of HCMF is impressively broad these days, and one of the concerts that best exemplified this took place in Bates Mill Photographic Studio on Saturday morning, in the company of Laura Cannell. To describe her as a composer and performer of folk music would be to over-simplify greatly what Cannell did in the six short movements of FEATHERS UNFURLED, receiving its world première. Switching between a fiddle and a pair of recorders (the latter being played simultaneously), each piece took tropes from both folk music as well as earlier musical idioms as the starting point for broader and more personal explorations. All of the works employed drones to underpin them, and in the various fiddle pieces this accentuated the primacy of open strings, which were continually heard as reference points, grounding the music, from which more (care)free ideas could spring and rise. In one of these pieces, Outstretched, this primacy was particularly striking as, due to detuning the instrument, the quality of the drone at first came to resemble an intoning male voice, later lending an unsettling air to the music due to its unexpected gravitas. The final fiddle piece, In The Room Not Passing Through – one of two using a bow with hair going both over and under the strings – moved farthest from its allusive conventions, combining obsessive bowing with extremes of bow pressure (both too much and too little). The sound emanating from the instrument, in conjunction with Cannell’s stylised mode of delivery – involving small, careful movements within a confined performance space – hinted at something magical being invoked beneath the music. In the recorder pieces Untethered and Hollowed, Cannell took on an even more shamanic demeanour, her movements now the ritualised actions of spell-casting, resulting in heavily motivic material in the latter piece, and a strange tonality betwixt minor and major in the former. This concert was a genuinely unexpected treat, proving how alive and adventurous new manifestations of ancient traditions of music-making continue to be. Read more

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HCMF 2017: TAPE, The Riot Ensemble, Ensemble PHACE + Laura Bowler

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Having heard Thomas Lehn’s live rendition of Bogusław Schaeffer’s 1964 Symphony last thing on Thursday night, it couldn’t have been more perfect to have started Friday in the company of four more Polish electronic works, dating from around a decade later. Eugeniusz Rudnik‘s Ready Made (1977) took a collage approach to found sounds, and was primarily interesting in the naively effective way Rudnik used the juxtaposition of these sounds to articulate a sense of internal energy, most obviously in a transition from a floating drone into a burst of Berlioz’s Radetzky March. Krzysztof Knittel‘s 1976 The Worm Conqueror was strikingly different from the grey industriality of Norcet II, heard on Tuesday. His soundworld was like being in vast oceanic depths, where quiet, delicate, tiny sounds floating in silence became the brief bursts of flamboyant colour from bioluminescent fish. This wasn’t only where we began, it also established a broader context of quietude where subsequent outbursts – some of which were enormous (the only time echoes of Norcet II could be heard): muscular, brutalist torrents of stuff sizzling in the space like hot soup being poured into ice water – sounded like aberrations from a path that eventually led back down into the depths. Here, at the last, something allusive could be glimpsed, as if just beyond our reach, before vanishing. Wow. In Daisy Story (1979) by Bohdan Mazurek, the most light-hearted piece in the concert, varying forms of momentum are explored, formed from squelchy analogue mush converted into a rude rhythmic bassline. However, as overtures go it was something of a red herring, followed by free-wheeling quasi-psychedelic ideas and gestures and melodic fragments (made of sine tones) that brought to mind the early work of Kraftwerk that zeitkrazer had revisited during the festival’s opening weekend. Further rhythmic underpinnings emerged, but it was those unfettered improvisational shapes that ultimately dominated and typified the piece. When discussing Bogusław Schaeffer’s Symphony yesterday i spoke of the ‘threatening silence’ endemic to so much early electronic music, which retrospectively acts as an analogue to composers’ grappling to harness new technology. An interesting counterpoint to this could be heard in Tomasz Sikorski‘s Solitude of Sounds (1975), where (again retrospectively; it would hardly have been the composer’s intention) the tape hiss worked both as a ‘shield’ against this silence as well as the means by which the material was animated, like a soft source of ambient electricity. There was something reassuring about its presence, and the way it was shaped around and behind everything else. Speaking of which: slow-moving objects caught between pitch (just) and noise (barely) like dark grey rectangles in a sea of ash. Somehow it ended up as a polarised high/low drone, each pole slowly changing in ways that were impossible to identify. One could almost imagine it as the music of the spheres, underpinning the entirety of the universe. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Explore Ensemble, Polwechsel + John Butcher + Klaus Lang, Thomas Lehn

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One of last year’s exciting new discoveries at HCMF was the London-based Explore Ensemble, whose performance of Gérard Grisey’s Talea on ‘shorts’ day was easily among its most memorable events. Fittingly, this year Explore was invited back to give a full concert, which only reinforced that first impression from 2016. The same wasn’t true for all of the music they played: new music today has a lot of what might be called ‘eggshell music’, where there’s a pervasive sense that any moment, if one player was to articulate a note just too loudly or obtrusively, the entire piece would instantly crumble to nothing. It’s as tricky to achieve for composers as performers, and in the case of Steven Daverson‘s Elusive Tangibility II: Firelife, the results were far too ephemeral to amount to anything. In La sabbia del tempo, Fausto Romitelli injected his delicate soundworld with interesting bands of harmonic colour though, again, the long-term effect kept one at a bemused distance. The other two works in the programme were much more triumphant, and in some respects one sounded like an iteration of each other. Enno Poppe‘s Gelöschte Lieder was a whirlwind of mid-to-high register masses of details, rigorous, insistent and piercing. There were so many details, in fact, that at times it felt hard to penetrate, like trying to hack through a dense portion of jungle. Read more

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HCMF 2017: We Spoke, London Sinfonietta + Irvine Arditti, GGR Betong

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Yesterday at HCMF was decidedly mixed. Contemporary music-making aiming to be radical, at the cutting edge, obviously involves risk. That risk in turn requires a considerable amount of trust: from commissioners and investors, stumping up the cash; from performers, committing to learn and perfect the material; from concert organisers, providing a platform and technical support; and from audiences, sacrificing money and time to engage with it. That trust was sorely tested in the afternoon concert in Phipps Hall given by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. Not too terribly in H and B by Simon Løffler, works that put so much emphasis on their visual and physical aspects – the former involving tuning forks and a machine with four rotating blades, the latter a system of pedals illuminating three lights in different combinations – that their aural content felt impoverished and vapid by comparison; all very unfortunate, but not particularly uncommon in new music concerts. Fritz Hauser‘s Schraffur was less convincing and musically rich than in its recorded version, which i reviewed early last year; i wonder whether it was seeing the gong-based rhythmic scrapings going on that rendered the effect less impressive and diminished its uncanny long-term potential (the recording, let me stress, is very striking indeed). Yet while these works merely taxed our trust – and this was absolutely no fault of We Spoke, who executed each piece superbly – it was well and truly squandered by Hanna Hartman‘s Shadow Box. Its twelve minutes of cracking open eggs and nuts and punching bags filled with air (i came to empathise with how each bag felt) was less a performance – still less music – than a crime scene in which the Emperor had his entire wardrobe nicked. i don’t think i’ve ever witnessed that trust i spoke of being not merely wasted, but egregiously exploited; if Hartman has any talent at all, precisely none of it was demonstrated in this shamefully vacuous crap. Miraculously, despite all this it was worth attending the concert to experience Cathy van Eck‘s Wings, receiving its UK première. Her work involving performers interacting with loudspeakers is always fascinating, and Wings didn’t disappoint. A ballet involving three large panels slowly being re-positioned around the space, altering the nature, effect and accumulation of feedback generated from microphones around the stage facing a single loudspeaker at the back, was wonderful, effortlessly achieving what every other work in this concert singularly failed to do, creating a perfect, seamless, mesmeric marriage of sight and sound. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Gęba Vocal Ensemble, Zwerm

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A few days ago, in relation to the (non-)performance at HCMF of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, i considered the question of what noise might be the opposite of, as a means to help defining what noise can actually be. But noise doesn’t have to be regarded as an opposite, or a polar extreme of a particular quality or characteristic, it can simply be something heard in relation to itself. i’m sure the late, great Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski would have concurred with this. His unique take on noise seems to me to have been articulated primarily in two ways, either regarding and treating it almost like a physical substance, focused upon with a laser-like intensity, or to set it up as a kind of ‘default condition’, the starting point from which – and within which – development and exploration take place. From this latter perspective (pace Shakespeare and Alex Ross) the rest is neither silence nor noise: practically speaking, there is no “rest”, noise is all there is. We use a word like ‘atmosphere’ to refer to the general mood created by a piece of music, but in Karkowski’s case it’s a much more literal atmosphere, an environment in which noise is as ubiquitous as air.

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HCMF 2017: Shorts

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i’ve been starting to wonder in recent years whether HCMF’s annual ‘Shorts’ day – on Monday, filled with free concerts lasting either 20 or 40 minutes – is actually one of the festival’s main highlights, rivalling the flagship events on the two weekends. It’s certainly an opportunity for musical experiences unlike anything you’re likely to find elsewhere, and this year’s was no exception.

What struck me most was the way entire concerts – rather than individual pieces within them – cohered so entirely as to become akin to a single composition. In the case of Dominic Murcott‘s Harmonic Canon (a world première), this was an especially impressive achievement as the two parts of the work were separated by a gap of over six hours. The work is structured around the imposing form of a large double-bell, which becomes both the visual and musical epicentre of its two 21-minute movements for percussion duo. Two bells, two fundamental pitches (the bells are tuned a semitone apart), two movements, two players, two separate groups of instruments – and in other ways too duality is at the heart of Harmonic Canon. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Polish Radio Choir, Karin Hellqvist

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For the first twenty minutes of the concert given by the Polish Radio Choir in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday, i was forming the view that, though what we’d heard seemed at odds with his description, Dai Fujikura had nonetheless composed not only two of his best ever works, but better than much of the new choral music i’ve heard in the last few years. However, then Polish composer Agata Zubel came onto the stage to take a bow, and it transpired we hadn’t been told that the entire running order had changed. Only now, after this, did we actually hear the UK and world premières of Fujikura’s Zawazawa and Sawasawa respectively, and as it turned out they were a much more conventional and humdrum affair. Zawazawa was interesting for a time, a mixture of homophonic writing with a muscular delivery giving the impression of a single voice refracted or multiplied into a much larger manifestation. It was let down by an excess of repetition, but quite pretty at times. Sawasawa, by contrast, was thoroughly confused, mainly due to the addition of a marimba that at almost no point seemed connected or related to what the choir was doing. Or, indeed, relevant; often it seemed as though two entirely separate pieces were being played simultaneously. All very odd. Read more

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HCMF 2017: The Otheroom, Ensemble Modern + Arditti Quartet, zeitkratzer perform Kraftwerk

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Yesterday at HCMF was unusual, personally speaking, as for the most part it involved hearing music not for the first time. In the evening at St Paul’s Hall, Ensemble Modern and the Arditti Quartet gave the first UK performances of Carola Bauckholt‘s Laufwerk, Christopher Trapani‘s PolychROME and Brian Ferneyhough‘s 45-minute collection of ‘encounters’ with the music of Christopher Tye, Umbrations. Bauckholt’s work was new to me, and it worked well as a concert-opener, moving through a sequence of motoric episodes, each one an imitation then an elaboration of a collection of prerecorded sounds made by Bauckholt “when I was alone”. Though not particularly memorable, it was energising and fun. i’ve written at some length about the Trapani and Ferneyhough works following their premières in Witten earlier this year. Hearing PolychROME again was a real treat, and on the strength of this second hearing i came away feeling that the piece works rather like a trap. Behaviourally, it quite quickly feels settled, inasmuch as its ants-in-the-pants jerks and spasms, qualified by brief chord swells, becomes almost too familiar. The turning point – and in hindsight, it’s hard not to hear this as Trapani heralding the start of what’s discreetly about to happen – comes with a prominent horn passage, almost fanfaric. As the music continues, dryer and sharper than ever, one becomes aware that everything is becoming more and more shrill, like a blurred scream coming more and more into the sharpest of focus. And before you even know how you got there, the entire ensemble is shrieking at you, each one louder and more relentlessly cranium-drilling than the last, triggering in the hall a welter of hands being rushed to lightweight ears. Absolutely wonderful. As for the Ferneyhough, hearing it again surprisingly made it sound less rich and ‘romantic’ than it had seemed a few months ago. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Red Note Ensemble, Metal Machine Music, Aeolian

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Here we go again (deep breath)…

The opening concert of the 40th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival immediately gave one pause for thought. What it wasn’t was a conventional wallop, a smack around the ears to wake us up out of our complacency, such as the one given by Jennifer Walshe and the Ardittis twelve months ago (from which i’m still not sure i’ve fully recovered). What it was though, at least in part, was a demonstration of the importance, potential and power of lyricism. If this sounds a bit slight in comparison, it isn’t, for in itself it’s another example of how open-minded HCMF has become under Graham McKenzie’s leadership. i have to confess that, prior to McKenzie taking over, my interest in HCMF had dwindled to nothing, due to how narrow and entirely predictable it had become. Somewhere along the way, the capacity for music to breathe and to provide scope for extended lyrical contemplation got essentially squeezed out. At last night’s opening concert in St Paul’s Hall given by Red Note Ensemble, there was almost a sense of defiance in the way one piece after another contributed to an atmosphere that, by its close, had become almost opulent. Read more

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Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio: Peter Eötvös – The Golden Dragon

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Let’s start at the end. It would be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking Peter Eötvös‘ music theatre piece The Golden Dragon, currently touring the UK in a production by Music Theatre Wales, as a serious, even moving piece. Or, rather, not mistaking it for that (few people, one hopes, are so easily duped), but feeling compelled to regard in that way, as by the end of its 90-minute duration the piece makes very clear that that is what was always intended. In some respects, the subject matter isn’t funny: an illegal immigrant worker – referred to as ‘The Little One’ (played by Llio Evans) – in the titular Asian restaurant develops an excruciating toothache, the tooth is forcefully extracted by the chefs (Lucy Schaufer, Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford), The Little One bleeds profusely and dies, and his body is then chucked into a river. But don’t misunderstand me: when i say the subject matter isn’t funny – and it really isn’t – that’s not because, by contrast, it’s serious either. Everything about the narrative – which is derived from an original play by Roland Schimmelpfennig – is ludicrous to the point of absurdity. Apropos: the work’s primary thread is embellished with various secondary ones of varying frivolity, concerning a pair of stewardesses having a meal, a granddaughter becoming pregnant to the enraged indignation of her boyfriend, and – i’m really not making this up – an ant acting as a pimp, sexually exploiting a cricket. Read more

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Nowy Teatr, Warsaw: Wojtek Blecharz – Body-Opera

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At the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the world première of Body-Opera by Polish composer Wojtek Blecharz didn’t exactly go to plan. Located at The Hepworth Wakefield – and set up somewhat hurriedly in the aftermath of the awarding of The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture that had recently taken place – an ensuing electrical fault caused a cluster of power points to fuse and melt, leading to the abandonment of the performance. As a consolation prize, the audience was treated to a short excerpt. From the composer’s perspective, it appears to have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Listening to him talk about the piece a couple of weeks ago, prior to its second performance at the Nowy Teatr in the Mokotów district of central Warsaw (a beautiful building converted from a warehouse for refuse vehicles), Blecharz clearly believes the problems experienced at Huddersfield were ultimately beneficial. He spoke about not seeing the work as ‘closed’, and to prove the point he has subsequently taken the opportunity to develop it further, in the process greatly expanding it from one to almost two hours’ duration. Developed through a pair of previous works, Transcryptum (2013) and Park-Opera (2016), Blecharz has a very specific outlook and purpose for Body-Opera. He wants to shift the focus from the performer to the audience, creating what he describes as a “shared contemplation of sound”.

To this end, picture the scene: neatly arranged in the four quadrants of the space were 100 mats, one for each member of the audience, with accompanying blankets and pillows. Within each pillow, a loudspeaker, channelling sound directly into the ears and skull of its supine recumbent. Beside the mat, a small black box containing sundry paraphernalia for use during the piece. Across the middle of the space, in one direction, a collection of large suspended metal thundersheets, in the other, something akin to a catwalk with a collection of percussive accoutrements. And above the space, in the centre, a large screen upon which various abstract shapes and film clips appeared. Blecharz’s urge to involve the audience – removing the division between them and the stage – stems from a desire to restore a social or communal aspect that he believes to be lost from conventional operatic production. But the word ‘opera’ in the work’s title is clearly intended to connote the original meaning of the word, the plural word “work”, in addition to its specifically theatrical implications. Blecharz’s Body-Opera consists of a similar collection of discrete, contrasting works that together comprise the whole. What exactly that whole is, or is intended to be, is somewhat harder to articulate. Read more

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