Featured Artists

Éliane Radigue – OCCAM DELTA IV

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It’s the grande dame‘s birthday today, and i’m rounding off my Éliane Radigue long weekend with another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, one that in some respects combines those featured in the last couple of days. OCCAM DELTA IV, for bowed harp, microtonal tuba and cello, dates from 2013, and initially focuses extremely intently on a low C. Once again, it’s a drone in which assorted partials can be heard to differing extents, colouring its timbre; here, though, the drone is underpinned with some octave lower pedal notes from the tuba, rendering the drone itself essentially an overtone on this occasion (again a parallel with The Hafler Trio’s Trilogy in Three Parts, in this case the final part). Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM XI

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For the second day of my Éliane Radigue long weekend, another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, and a particularly austere one. Composed in 2013, OCCAM XI is not simply for solo tuba, but solo microtonal tuba, specifically that of British tubist Robin Hayward. Not that that’s immediately obvious from the music, but then it’s not immediately obvious that a tuba is involved at all.

The work’s 13-minute span falls into three sections, the first of which contains a low F, articulated as a series of fragile fragments, air and vocal noise at the fringes, with both its pitch centre and its overtones undulating slightly, moving between different vowel shapes. The sound is a curious cross between throat singing and a kind of ancient reed instrument—almost, in fact, as though the instrument itself had found sentience and was attempting to speak; decidedly fascinating and unsettling. The second section, around the midpoint, shifts up a fifth and becomes more sustained, the tuba’s sounds much less differentiated but suggesting something more ritualistic, its strangely dogged persistence hinting at some higher purpose, as though casting a muffled incantation. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM RIVER XII (World Première)

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This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focused epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more

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An inner conflict of cosmic proportions: Man Without Country

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Many’s the time i decide to write about a composer, group or artist and find it almost unconscionable that i haven’t done so already. That’s overwhelmingly the case with Man Without Country, a duo from south Wales whose unique brand of dreamy electronic pop has been doing the rounds for a little over two years. Indeed, it’s tempting to begin with an apology for not featuring them sooner. Still, definitely better late than never.

If you were to combine the heartfelt melancholy of Keane, the aloof, breathy detachment of Pet Shop Boys, the late-night wistfulness of Go West and the viscous, transcendent haze of M83, you’d begin to approximate the essence of Man Without Country’s music. Choosing their name, they say, as it “carries an instant intrigue […] it derives from ‘a sense of not belonging’ “, Tomas Greenhalf and Ryan James hit the ground running two summers ago with their first EP, King Complex. Both in its entirety and in just the title track (which remains one of their best) can be heard the duo’s predilection for a mode of expression that employs both the gentlest of soft edges as well as timbres and textures that cut like razor wire. It’s a dichotomy that works because it must, being the means to what is ultimately a very emotional end, declared with unflinching honesty in their lyrics. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Plötzlichkeit (UK Première)

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A principal thread running through much of Brian Ferneyhough’s music is one that plays with notions of linear narrative. It has been present as far back as the Sonatas for String Quartet, composed in 1967, which intercuts two entirely separate materials, one strictly serial, the other intuitive. Incipits (1996)—drawing inspiration from Italo Calvino’s book ‘If on a winter’s night a Traveller’—sidestepped narrative completely through an examination of ways a composition can be started, and we’ve already seen how Exordium employs a radically abstracted example of this, providing an anthology of fragments from which the listener is left to derive their own kind of narrative. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Missa Brevis

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From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form and text so embedded in the development and consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, and the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations and legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:

[…] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions and liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, and still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…

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Ferneyhough Week – Prometheus

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Today i’m going to focus on a relatively early work of Ferneyhough’s, Prometheus for wind sextet, composed in 1967. It’s not a piece that’s performed terribly often, nor is there much information about it, i suspect in part due to how early it was composed (when Ferneyhough was just 24 years old, the same year he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music). The piece seems to have been created via a decision-making process with deliberately limited options; the number of alternatives available at any given point would vary, Ferneyhough selecting from them intuitively. Prometheus is therefore a work that could have turned out entirely differently, as the composer explained in an interview with Philippe Albèra:

The score as it now exists is thus one expression of a field which could, theoretically, have produced quite a different set of results entirely. The title of the piece reflects this openness, the protean quality of my frame of reference.

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Ferneyhough Week – Exordium

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La terre est un homme is an unusual work in Brian Ferneyhough’s output, inasmuch as he has only written for orchestra on two occasions (his other orchestral work will be featured later this week). The string quartet, on the other hand, is a medium to which he has turned on no fewer than eight occasions. In 2008, Ferneyhough composed a short work for string quartet to mark Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. Lasting around nine minutes, Exordium—subtitled (rather pretentiously) ‘Elliotti Carteri in honorem centenarii’—is a more extreme rendition of the kind of disjunct presentation heard in his 1996 work Incipits (featured on 5:4 back in 2008). The programme note provides some unexpected context:

In common with many medieval grimoires and books of spells, Exordium elevates the non-sequitur to a formal principle. Consisting of more than forty independant fragments, the work might thus be seen as a special case of ‘sympathetic magic’.

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Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme

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This week sees the 70th birthday of one of the UK’s most significant composers, Brian Ferneyhough. For nearly fifty years, his music has been thrilling and discombobulating audiences in not entirely equal measure, pursuing his compositional goals with ruthless, painstaking rigour. As has long been the case with its most interesting and challenging composers, Ferneyhough’s music has never been strongly welcomed or well-received in the UK, and even the Barbican’s Total Immersion day devoted to him in 2011 essentially only comprised two concerts—to be admired of course, but not exactly an immersion, suggesting little has changed in terms of home-grown appreciation.

His music is to some extent a progression from the integral serialism arrived at by Stockhausen and Boulez in the 1950s, but only in terms of organisational precision; his work is not concerned with—indeed, is often wildly opposed to—the kind of balance that serialism seeks to explore. Multiple layers and an element of refraction—aspects of something heard in different ways from different angles, only slowly grasped, if at all—dominate the way his music presents itself. That makes it something of a formidable force from a listening perspective, and Ferneyhough himself has on numerous occasions spoken of the way he seeks to position the music always a bit ‘beyond’ the listener, inviting what he calls a kind of “meta-listening” (a term that raises more questions than it answers). Whether his music is any more ‘beyond’ an audience than many other composers’ work is debatable and in any case subjective, but regardless, one can never fail to be aware that there is very much more transpiring in a work by Ferneyhough than is immediately obvious.

The swiftest of glances at any of his scores underlines that fact; his use of notation is uniquely dense and florid, comprising the most intricately complex filigree. This aspect of his work has long proved to be the most controversial, provoking a rather tiring series of diatribes and apologias—almost always closed arguments, reinforcing existing prejudices—for the convolutions of Ferneyhough’s notational demeanour. This historically lopsided focus on the appearance of Ferneyhough’s music has no doubt been exacerbated by the lack of both available recordings and regular concert performances (my own first contact, in the mid-1990s, was almost entirely via his scores, for this very reason), a situation that has not drastically improved over the years. So as the composer approaches his 70th year, much still needs to be done. Whether 2013 will bring any efforts towards a more enlightened appraisal, or even an in-depth retrospective, remains to be seen. One can at least hope; and to that end this week on 5:4 is a celebration of Brian Ferneyhough’s music. Read more

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Giving voice to the indescribable: Aaron Cassidy – The Crutch of Memory

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There are times when a composer wins you over instantly, the cogency of their arguments captured in a transparent marriage of sound and idea that’s instantly familiar and welcoming. This has emphatically not been my experience with the music of Aaron Cassidy. Over the last few years, i’ve oscillated around Cassidy’s music with the regularity of a comet, never quite pulled into orbit (or should that be a collision?), but constantly drawn back nonetheless. With the release, a few months ago, of the first CD devoted to his music, i figured it was time to try to pin down my thoughts about what Aaron Cassidy is up to. The CD, The Crutch of Memory, focuses on works for one or two players, encompassing both Cassidy’s earliest music as well as relatively recent pieces, the latest of which is around three years old. Both the spread of output as well as the restricted forces involved make this a superb primer for Cassidy’s work.

To begin to understand his compositional approach, take a look at the score excerpt below, taken from Richard Barrett’s 1988 work for trombone and percussion, EARTH (click for high-res).

At this point, towards the end of the piece, the trombone’s music abruptly bifurcates into two staves, the upper showing the slide positions, the lower showing the harmonics being sounded. This fundamentally undermines the way a trombonist is used to playing, where these two parameters imply each other within conventional notation; yet by ‘decoupling’ those parameters, and destroying their traditional connection, Barrett creates a remarkable effect—which, in context, is both profoundly moving and deeply distressing—that could not have been achieved any other way.
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A crazily convoluted crucible of ideas: Three Trapped Tigers – Numbers: 1–13

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Turning away from the Lent series for a bit, for some time now i’ve been itching to write about Three Trapped Tigers. They’re a trio of musicians from London, and despite the fact they consist of keyboards, bass guitar and drums, despite the fact their music is given labels such as ‘math rock’ or ‘instrumental noise rock’, and despite the fact their live gigs subject one’s eardrums to the kind of pummelling one might expect from, say, Meshuggah, it just doesn’t feel right to describe them as a ‘band’. Superficially, they fit the mould, but their music is significantly different—in both conception and execution—from pretty much everyone else of that ilk.

Their debut album, Route One or Die, was released last year, and the fact i placed it second on my Best Albums of 2011 perhaps says something. It’s an astonishing tour de force of heavyweight invention and lightweight agility, but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. For a full three years beforehand, Tom Rogerson (keyboards/vocals), Matt Calvert (guitar/electronics) and Adam Betts (drums) evolved their unique mode of expression through a series of 13 compositions; simply numbered in order rather than given names, these pieces were released on three EPs with similarly functional titles, EP (2008), EP2 (2009) and EP3 (2010). Released in relatively small quantities, these EPs have became hard to find, so they’ve recently been re-released both as digital downloads as well as on a “remastered” compilation album, Numbers: 1–13; more about these later. Read more

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Death and transfiguration: the music of Celer

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A little over a week ago, i began writing a post. Here’s how it began…

At the close of 2008, when i posted my favourite albums of the year, i mentioned that the list was necessarily provisional. Six months and a considerable amount of listening later, i’ve now realised there’s one group that is conspicuous by their absence. At least, they were partially present, in the brief mention i made of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann that found itself at no. 9 in my top 40 of the year’s releases. They are Celer, a duo made up of husband and wife Dani Baquet-Long and Will Long.

A couple of days after writing those words, tragedy struck: Dani died, following a sudden heart failure. Thus, Will has lost his wife and musical collaborator, and we’ve all lost a fascinating, highly creative and imaginative artist. i recently established contact with Will and Dani, and had hoped to get to know them both a little better, and conduct an interview with them soon for 5:4. So, in the wake of Dani’s abrupt passing, i feel both immense sadness and profound disappointment. As ever, though, the music lives on, serving as an infinitely more eloquent eulogy and testament than words ever could. It’s in that spirit, then, that i’m continuing to write this post.

Celer have been actively releasing their work since 2004, five years that have produced a simply astounding amount of music: no fewer than 37 releases, most of which are full-length albums, alongside a smattering of shorter EPs. But quality and quantity are difficult bed-fellows, which makes it all the more remarkable that so much of Celer’s output is so interesting and engaging. After two false starts—listening to Mesoscaphe last year and a little release in February—i’ve spent the last month listening to almost nothing other than their music, and a dizzying experience it’s been. Where to begin… Read more

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Hoping against hope: the soft, exquisite sorrow of Daisy Chapman

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What is it, i’ve often wondered, that makes melancholy such rich, fertile inspiration for art? Perhaps because in its impossibly deep, dark furrows—in the troughs of our experience—there simply is nothing else an artist can do, but (in whatever guise) sing. Art, after all, captures what words alone cannot; it goes beyond them and taps into something more honest, that must be expressed; E. E. Cummings alludes to this idea in one his poems, powerfully distancing it from mere speech: “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words | —our second coming made stones sing like birds—”. Yet there is also, i would venture, something essentially optimistic, something hopeful in the very act of turning such black honesty into art: the fact that an artist sings, rather than—like most—simply curling up or lashing out, betrays more at the heart of it all; Cummings again, in the final two lines from his finest poem, says it best: “where everything’s nothing | —arise, my soul;and sing”. And from just such a place, doing just that is Daisy Chapman. Read more

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