Concerts

HCMF 2015: Richard Uttley, United Instruments of Lucilin

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It’s perhaps a little early, following just two concerts yesterday evening, to start describing the characteristics that typify this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. But based on these, and considering the featured composer is Jürg Frey, it would seem that ‘delicacy’ is going to be one of this year’s prevailing themes. In saying it dominated the piano recital given by local hero Richard Uttley, that’s as true of the performer as it was of the music being performed. i wouldn’t use this term of many pianists but, both from a purely aural perspective as well as watching him perform, Uttley comes across like a ballet dancer. His movements are graceful, lyrical, acrobatic; keys are sprung from, landed upon, tickled, urged, encouraged, coaxed—but rarely, it seems to me, merely struck.
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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – The Comedy of Change

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Last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted on this occasion by Oliver Knussen, was a typically tightly-packed affair, featuring seven works (plus an encore) that, despite their respective brevity, added up to a concert that was surprisingly lengthy and filling. Calling it an embarrassment of riches wouldn’t be exactly right, although both of those epithets made their presence felt. Of the former, there was the usual helping of forgettable Faberian froth, represented this time by Julian Anderson‘s The Comedy of Change and, to a lesser extent, Polly Roe by BCMG’s new Composer-in-Residence Patrick Brennan. Anderson’s overlong, seven-movement work—the title of which bore no relation to what one actually heard—was another iteration of his endless recycling of the same small pool of ideas, spiky staccatos firing away upon distorted unison melodic blather, not so much animated as made to twitch like electrified frog’s legs with large doses of velocity and rhythmic rigour. Read more

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New Music in the South West: Music and Art

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Last Sunday saw the first concert of the year given by New Music in the South West, an organisation founded a couple of years ago by composer Julian Leeks, based in Bristol. Taking place within the city’s grand Royal West of England Academy of Art, the concert was interconnected with ‘Drawn’, an annual open submission exhibition exploring the diverse facets of drawing (in the midst of which the concert took place), and ‘Four Seasons’, an exhibition of the work of Zhang Enli at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Bruton. The concert specifically posed the questions, “How does one define the relationship between music and art? How might a work of visual art be re-imagined as music?”. Answers were offered from a collection of composers, all but one of whom have South West associations: Geoff Poole, Julian Leeks, Litha Efthymiou, Jean-Paul Metzger and (the odd one out) Hildur Guðnadóttir. Performed by the Bristol Ensemble String Quartet, the five works were stylistically contrasting and, broadly speaking, offered compelling takes on their respective inspirational origins. Read more

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Electric Spring 2015

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i don’t know which felt more strange, being in Huddersfield for a music festival in February (rather than November), or the fact that, somehow, for two decades the university’s Electric Spring festival has entirely passed me by. Better late than never, i suppose, especially as this year’s festival, which took place over five days last week, was celebrating a double anniversary, both the 20 years that Electric Spring has existed as well as the 10 years during which it has been run by composers Monty Adkins and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (an era which has now ended; in future the festival will be curated by a newly-formed committee).

In addition to various daytime activities—including workshops on sound projection (using Huddersfield’s 48-speaker HISS diffusion system) and live coding (supplemented by a late evening ‘algorave’), as well as an MSP symposium and the ‘Yorkshire wiggle’ modular synthfest—Electric Spring centred on five evening concerts, featuring a headline act and opening with a short work by a different composer. The latter varied considerably in terms of both imagination and execution. Ben PottsCuboid was wilfully obtuse, bookended by bouts of tickling a kind of suspended multiple wobble-board, in between which non-sequitur bursts of shifting bandwidth came and went; it was at least mercifully short. Roberto Gerhard‘s DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile No. 2), composed in 1963, formed the soundtrack to a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabal. This felt problematic in a similar way to some of the film accompaniments by Bernard Parmegiani, insofar as the visuals in no way lived up to the more experimental qualities of the music. Where the film was characterised by symmetry and anecdotal references, full of cycling images with large amounts of repetition, Gerhard’s music, encompassing an extremely wide dynamic range, seemed to follow its own predominately amorphous nose (revealingly, he described it an “aleatoric soundtrack”). The audiovisual combination caused a sharp aesthetic jarring that could only be solved by shutting one’s eyes. β Pictoris b by Olivier Pasquet referred to specifics in its programme note—”an extrasolar planet located approximately 63 light-years away”—but his music could hardly have been more generalised, a study in texture formed from the movement and juxtaposition of a body of timbrally similar particles. This was interesting in and of itself, but how Pasquet’s somewhat psychobabbular description matched his material was mystifying. The highlight of these openers for me was guitarist Diego Castro Magas’ rendition of Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, completed as far back as 2007 but only now receiving its world première. i’m not sure which aspect was more jaw-dropping, Magas’ performance—involving incredibly fast hand and finger agility, racing up and around the fingerboard, to and from the tremolo bar, while operating two foot-pedals—or the resultant music which, apart from a section toward the end, sounded about as far from guitar music as one could imagine. There was, admittedly, a surfeit of information to grapple with on this first listen, Magas positively ploughing through Cassidy’s layers of simultaneous action (one of the most frantic passages can be seen in the excerpt above), but its soundworld could not have been more urgent and inviting. i can’t wait to hear it again. And again. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Electric Spring 2015

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A brief, belated heads-up about an essential occasion for all those with more than a passing interest in new electronic and electroacoustic music. Huddersfield University’s Electric Spring festival begins tomorrow and runs until Sunday, celebrating the 20th year of its existence (a celebration anticipated at HCMF 2014). There are some tantalising performances scheduled, including an opening-night homage to the music of two of the UK’s most radical electronic experimentalists, Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, plus concerts featuring the work of, among others, Isnaj Duj and Monolake’s Robert Henke, alongside new pieces from Ben Potts and Aaron Cassidy. There are assorted additional events for those wishing to immerse themselves more deeply, including daily pre-concert talks, a week-long installation by Spanish sound artist Elías Merino, sound projection and live coding workshops, a late evening ‘algorave’ and an msp power-user symposium. Personally, i’m especially looking forward to Sunday afternoon’s ‘great Yorkshire wiggle’; i don’t pretend to know what it has to do with modular synths, i just know i want to be part of it.

All concerts take place at the Phipps Hall in Huddersfield’s swanky Creative Arts building, and each and every one of them is free. Detailed info can be found at the Electric Spring website. All being well, i’ll be there for the duration, reporting back on the great and the good. And of course the wiggle.

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HCMF 2014: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Arditti Quartet

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The closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was dominated by the music of composer-in-residence, James Dillon. Saturday found him represented by two major works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick, the piano concerto Andromeda and the first performance of Physis, a work originally commissioned over 10 years ago by the Orchestre de Paris for the bi-centennial of Berlioz’s birth but, following various organisational machinations, not ultimately performed. Before them both came L’abscencia, a short orchestral work by the 2013 HCMF composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra. If last year established anything, it was that Parra enjoys creating highly intricate textures, and these were to be found in abundance. Particularly interesting was the work’s inherently conflicted nature, where unstable surface elements acted out upon a series of shifting but otherwise stable firmaments. Parra’s approach to orchestration pays attention to the lightest and most ephemeral of sounds, which quite apart from anything else makes his music highly attractive. The work’s closing gesture was pure beauty: a tense pause followed by a kind of accented sigh, faint harmonics ascending into the ether. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Monty Adkins + Britt Pernille Frøholm, Arne Deforce + Mika Vainio, Gareth Davis

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts all featured soloists performing and interacting with electronics and/or visual elements within large-scale compositional forms. Monty Adkins‘ new 40-minute work Spiral Paths to some extent brings together the twin lines of enquiry that led to Four Shibusa (electronics with live performers) and Rift Patterns (electronics with video projection). Spiral Paths comprises five distinct movements, with a prominent solo part for hardanger fiddle—performed by Britt Pernille Frøholm, who also commissioned the work—and projected visuals created by Jason Payne. Anyone familiar with Adkins’ work over the last few years may reasonably know what to expect, but Spiral Paths goes deeper, or at least, pulls out a lot more stops. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Next Wave, Trio Accanto

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Most of today’s concerts were part of an initiative run by Sound and Music and NMC Recordings called Next Wave, showcasing the work of composers in higher education. The performances involved members of the London Sinfonietta, Sounds of the Engine House and ACM Ensemble, in an assortment of small size groupings. Highlights among the twelve pieces included Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP III, composed for cassette recorder (in the act of recording itself), piano and percussion. Both the soundworld and the form of the work are striking and very effective indeed, clear in its sense of direction yet with a pervasive air of spontaneity. The conclusion, entering a dark, hauntological space, was wonderful; the only danger with the piece was being distracted by the exploits of the players, especially the percussionist’s use of a bicycle. Weiwei Jin‘s Sterna Paradiaea, Returning… was arguably the most ambitious work of the day; the second act of a transm Read more

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HCMF 2014: Quatuor Bozzini, Electric Spring @ 20

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This evening’s (rather poorly attended) concert given by the Bozzini Quartet featured a trio of works by composers from their native Canada. Of the three, Martin Arnold‘s Vault was the most straightforward, the quartet for the most part enunciating a single melodic line as a single musical body, united by material, rhythm, dynamic and mode of articulation. It would be pushing it to call it interesting exactly, although for a time there was something quite enchanting about hearing the undulations of the line handled so very quietly. However, the decision by so many bronchitic members of the audience to cough their guts up during the piece severely undermined its hold. Marc Sabat‘s Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, receiving its UK première, explored “tuning differences between the untempered natural harmonics of the [quartet’s] 16 open strings”; using just intonation, this seemed to herald 25 minutes of microtonality, but Sabat’s emphasis is on just tuned triads, meaning that much of the piece sounded perfectly ordinary; the first movement underwent a gradual ascent to a high altitude where the unusual tunings, heard in gleaming harmonics, finally became obvious; the second movement initially answered this with a descent but its ultimate trajectory and purpose were very much harder to ascertain. Most striking of all was Nicole Lizée‘s Hitchcock Études, another UK première, where cut up sound fragments from a number of Hitchcock’s films—Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Birds—form the basis for the quartet’s material. In some ways the music resembled parts of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, although Lizée was concerned more with musical phrases coming from repetitions of non-verbal sounds. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Shorts, Feldman’s Pianos, asamisimasa

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Yesterday was HCMF’s annual day of ‘Shorts’, concerts of between 20 and 40 minutes, affording the opportunity to hear an exceptionally diverse range of music. Taken as a whole, it’s a cross between an Aladdin’s cave and one of those machines with the grappling hook that you find in amusement arcades: you’re not really sure what you’ll get, but every now and again it’s something really special. Among the highlights was guitarist Diego Castra Magaš‘ rendition of Michael Finnissy‘s Nasiye, a passionate work that transmits both dignity and authenticity, the Kurdish folk music that inspired it running like a thread throughout, movingly brought to the surface in its intense closing climax. Double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister gave a stunning account of two pieces by Catalonian composer Joan Arnau Pàmies, the latter of which, [k(d_b)s], set about forging a new musical language from scratch, de-coupling performance parameters and working with them independently; it began sounding like a swarm of bees angrily trying to sting their way out of a jiffy bag, but where it went from there is impossible to describe—suffice to say it was truly remarkable, and the same goes for Schulmeister’s performance, turning an ostensibly ungainly instrument into a writhing white-hot crucible. Read more

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HCMF 2014: James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen

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Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Bit20 Ensemble, Cikada Ensemble

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts had much in common, beginning with nationality, featuring two Norwegian ensembles, Bit20 and Cikada. But beyond this, much of the music in each concert, although stylistically diverse, had a predominant interest in texture as the primary vehicle for their respective endeavours. The results, another aspect in common, were not uniformly successful. Cikada’s account of Jon Øivind NessGimilen, receiving its UK première, could hardly have been more rigorous and purposeful, yet neither of these epithets seemed qualities of the music itself. In many ways the piece is an 18-minute tutti, with minimal instrumental differentiation, all players working toward the same communal end. Which appears to be a series of episodes, characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour, some involving steady changes in tempo, one sounding like a torrent of Shepard tones. That makes them sound more engaging than they really were; their cycles felt hollow, a literal going through the motions, and the Stravinsky-like conclusion made one realise how much the piece seemed to be ballet music. Perhaps something visual would have filled in the blanks left by the music. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Lohengrin, Philip Thomas, Aurora Orchestra

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Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Read more

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One more gig

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An event i unconscionably failed to mention in my recent gig article is the latest DIVAContemporary concert, taking place this Saturday, 22 November, at Weymouth College’s Bay Theatre, on the south Dorset coast. These concerts are curated by one of the UK’s most ceaselessly energetic and imaginative composers, Marc Yeats, on this occasion featuring flautist Carla Rees, oboist Paul Goodey and clarinettist Sarah Watts. They’ll be performing music by established figures, Salvatore Sciarrino, Elliott Carter and Violeta Dinescu, alongside works by Yeats and a variety of younger composers selected for the concert series, including Richard Stanbrook, Benjamin Graves, Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Mic Spencer, as well as myself: my work for solo flute, ‘unredeemed’ self-) portrait(in the form of an eagle, one of the pieces to have emerged from my ongoing PhD composition studies, will be receiving its world première.

This concert series has the added bonus of being streamed live over the internet, so if you can’t attend (as i can’t, being nearly 300 miles away in Huddersfield at the time), you can at least be there in spirit. Full information here.

Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen

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Festivals come and festivals go, and Cheltenham—just like Bristol New Music a few months back—imaginatively opted to end not with a bang but on a high. It came courtesy of Norway, with the immaculate combination of Trio Mediaeval, three female singers with voices lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, and one of the most versatile trumpeters of our age, Arve Henriksen. The fruits of their collaboration, heard within the majestic space that is Cheltenham College’s Chapel, were as breathtaking as they were unexpected. For a little over an hour, they together weaved a tapestry of sound that integrated early music from throughout Europe, both sacred and secular, with avant garde and experimental elements, including electronics. What this was not—and the lengthy, articulate programme note from the Trio went to some lengths to elaborate this—was an attempt to present early music with an affected air of ‘authenticity’, but instead to embrace the unknowability of such ancient music and reinvent it at each performance. As such, it becomes something simultaneously ancient and modern: Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Pärt & Tavener, A Candlelit Tribute to John Tavener

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In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try and make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet and a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas and Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration and appraisal of both composers’ work.
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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Fidelio Trio, The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, Tokaido Road

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Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways and for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences and memories from the past. The most frustrating and patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland and Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint and simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focused lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin and cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work and second première: Gavin HigginsThe Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after and inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical and nostalgic weight. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: An Evening with Nicola Benedetti

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Once upon a time, it bore the proud title Cheltenham Festival of British Contemporary Music; for the last 50 years, it’s simply been Cheltenham Music Festival. Even though it has to a large extent yielded to the essentially conservative musical taste that pervades this part of the Cotswolds (as a Cheltonian myself, I can say that without compunction), Cheltenham has evolved into a festival where music old and new sit side by side, with many concerts featuring at least one contemporary work. There have been times, over the years, when this ancient/modern adjacency has felt forced, even apologetic. However, last night’s event, in our rather grand Town Hall, was nothing of the kind. Read more

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LCMF 2014: The Music of Bernard Parmegiani

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Festivals acquire a significant part of their character from geographical context, and 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—and thereby infused with the smells and atmosphere—from Brick Lane, a perfect environment for Parmegiani’s music, laden with its own unique blend of spice, heat and 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 and technical skill largely unmatched by his contemporaries (and 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 and appraisal of Parmegiani’s output, an appraisal that surely cannot fail to reveal him as a compositional pillar of the twentieth century, and 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 and the place to be Huddersfield. Except this time it was the streets and 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 and the downright remarkable. Bigging it up last week, i opined that it looked all set to become the HCMF of the south west, and 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 and running. Yet while in some ways his fingerprints could be detected all over the weekend, Bristol had an atmosphere and 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 and 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. Read more

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