Festivals

World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released.

The only entirely electronic concert took place on Sunday afternoon, given by the not-entirely-snappily-named Estonian Electronic Music Society’s Ensemble. Vahid Jahandari‘s fixed media The Vulture was arguably the most impressive work on the programme. Inspired by photojournalist Kevin Carter’s famous troubling image of a vulture lurking near a starving girl, Jahandari’s soundscape transformed sounds from a double bass into an immersive, deeply threatening soundscape. There was something distinctly plaintive lurking within, though, heard in higher register material and fragments of melody, ghostly remnants and traces that seemed doomed in such a glowering environment, and which ultimately disappeared into their own reverb. Though the rest of the concert was somewhat more rudimentary, it had a couple of striking moments. In REMOTE ME, Serbian composer Jasna Veličković utilised two remote controls in close proximity to three electromagnetic pick-up coils to create a really fun, beat-oriented miniature study. Fellow Serb Andreja Andric‘s Pocket Electronic Symphony #1 was similarly engaging, the performer wielding a smartphone to generate what sounded like a datastream being shaped into abstract forms, textures and patterns. It was ‘symphonic’ inasmuch as its elements were often, literally, sounding together, and i honestly couldn’t help thinking of Mahler when an extended loud sequence erupted as if from nowhere. It’s worth saying that while the two performances by the entire six-member ensemble – an improvisation and a new work called Flux by ensemble member Ekke Västrik – sounded rather tentative and uncertain (from both a compositional and performative perspective), i couldn’t help admiring the simplicity of their approach, and their focus on elementary signals as the basis for music. It initially seemed dated, but was it really? Getting away from the usual experience of sound sources that have been subjected to massive amounts of treatment and processing was a tremendous relief.

i was glad to have a second opportunity to hear music by Icelandic composer Ríkharður H. Friðriksson. Though i’d been underwhelmed by his performance at the Dark Music Days in January, his fixed media piece … e mezzo, heard in the reverberant Niguliste Church on Friday evening, was excellent, flooding the space and enveloping us in rapid-fire, anonymous stuff, streams of vocalise and pitchless scrunch and noise. It was by far one of the most abstract things i heard all week, but also one of the most immediate and exhilarating. Elizabeth Anderson‘s 8-channel Solar Winds was by contrast a complete let-down – all the more so due to its inordinate quantity of accompanying tl;dr explanatory notes that turned out to mean essentially nothing in light of its vague, undifferentiated, safe and shrug-worthy material. Sweden’s Thommy Wahlström bravely sought to incorporate the church’s primary instrument in his 2017 invention for organ and EA No. 18. The organ part (performed by Ulla Krigul) was strongly redolent of Messiaen’s 1969 Méditations (both the material and the choice of registrations), though articulated such that it sounded private, as if we were being made privy to a kind of ‘inner’ music, even an ‘inadvertent’ music, made all the more vivid through Wahlström’s use of the sound of the organ compressor. As such, the acoustic and field recording elements blended entirely to form a fascinatingly liminal experience.

Among the other electroacoustic highlights was the world première of Schattenseele [The Soul of Shadow] for violin and electronics by Age Veeroos, performed by Swedish duo There Are No More Four Seasons. As with last year’s orchestral work Skein of Thought, Veeroos managed to create something provocatively intriguing from the most wispy and elusive of ideas. Considering the work’s inspiration, it was impossible not to hear its intangible substance as a manifestation of some kind of ‘soul material’, though seemingly not so much made from shadow but light. In Orison for three music box players and electronics, Canada’s Kotoka Suzuki created an interesting disjunct between the physicality of the music-making process – music boxes, strips of papers being fed into them, all closely-coordinated – and the dream-like bliss of the music. To be honest, ‘bliss’ obviously isn’t quite the right word considering Suzuki’s concern was “the voices of children during wartime”, yet while the electronics introduced more negative connotations, the ultimate emphasis of the work seemed to be more on simplicity than pain or damage. Either way, performed by Finnish group Defunenesmble, it was highly effective. At the same concert, inside Tallinn’s amazing former industrial factory now creative hub the Kultuurikatel, Welsh composer Andrew Lewis improbably found inspiration from the squeals of an escalator, which in Straatmuziek [Street Music] were translated into material for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano and electronics. Initially imitative, thereafter the music became romanticised and elaborated. It was really very lovely in an obliquely lyrical way, a line running through its centre but subject to deviations and splinterings off. The involvement of the electronics, introducing the sound of the actual escalator, was beautifully seamless, providing deep rumbles and enhancing the noise and friction in the ensemble. Brilliant.

Several of the electroacoustic works also incorporated video elements. At one end of the spectrum were Alexander Schubert‘s Star Me Kitten and Stefan PrinsGeneration Kill – offspring 1, two of the most stunningly self-indulgent, masturbatory, pretentious and stupefyingly stupid things i have ever been subjected to in a concert hall. It would be easy to point the finger at the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn’s artistic director Arash Yazdani who, based on the combination of last year’s concert of his music, plus an additional bit of doggerel heard this year, and this entire concert, seems concerned solely with the most dismally superficial and reheated forms of shock, provocation and titillation, but the buck stops with Schubert and Prins. Discreet conversations with many, many people throughout the rest of the festival testified that my response to these pieces was very far from being unique (the exact opposite, in fact), so the buck – and Yazdani for that matter – should most definitely stop.

At the other end of the spectrum, back at the Kultuurikatel, in All Play Norwegian composer Jan Martin Smørdal erased the sound of a typically outlandish performance by guitarist Daniel Meyer Grønvold (shown on a screen above the stage) and replaced it with material inspired by, and perhaps to an extent imitative of, the original. The members of Defunensemble increasingly felt fundamentally connected to Grønvold, seemingly becoming the external mouthpiece – or a kind of multi-faceted loudspeaker – for his gestures and contortions. It was entirely convincing, the ensemble seeming to tease out the inner details and filigree contained within Grønvold’s waves, sheets and slabs of noise. Later that evening, Kristine Tjøgersen‘s Mistérios do Corpo [Mysteries of the Body] for string quartet and video did to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal’s body what Andrew Lewis had done to the escalator. Based on a work by Pascoal (of the same name) performed by and on his own supine body, Tjøgersen extends his percussive and vocal sounds to the string quartet. Though perhaps a touch overlong (presumably the same could be said for Pascoal’s piece too), synchronised with the muted video the performance, given by members of the Yxus Ensemble, was compelling throughout, by turns mesmeric and downright hilarious.

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 2)

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The one opportunity to hear music for full orchestra at this year’s World Music Days took place on Friday evening at the Estonia Concert Hall, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts. The Estonian Music Days’ tradition of recent years has been to begin the Friday orchestral concert with the presentation of the Au-tasu award, given to the work by an Estonian composer premièred during the previous year deemed by a jury to be the best. In its 2016 inaugural year, one of the younger generation, Liisa Hirsch, took the prize, but since then the award seems to have become simply a celebration of Estonia’s most well-established senior composers: Toivo Tulev in 2017, Erkki-Sven Tüür in 2018, with this year’s winner being Helena Tulve. i’m not at all suggesting the compositions that won were not the best in that particular year, but it nonetheless seems a little troubling to see the award so quickly gravitate to the upper echelons of Estonian contemporary music. Arvo Pärt in 2020? That being said, though it didn’t win, special mention was given to a work that, to my mind, wasn’t only one of the best of last year but one of the best i’ve heard in the four years i’ve been attending the festival: Conatus by Liina Sumera. It’s a work i raved about it at its première last year, and while i haven’t yet heard all of the works shortlisted for this year’s award, it would have been entirely fitting if Sumera’s dazzling electronic work had taken the prize. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 1)

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At the northernmost edge of Tallinn, looking out over the Baltic Sea towards Finland, is a huge concrete edifice called the Linnahall. Built during the Soviet occupation, it was constructed as part of the USSR’s hosting of the 1980 Olympic Games, as a coastal hub for the boating events. It’s a place i’ve gone to visit each time i’ve been in Tallinn during the last four years, to savour, and marvel at, its complete incongruity. Of course, Tallinn has the usual complement of modern office blocks, skyscrapers and the like, the scale and sharp edges of which are themselves at some remove from the more modest sizes and gentler inclines of the Old Town and the remains of its surrounding wall. But the Linnahall is different: it’s the personality, if you will, of the architecture that feels so completely alien: massive, brutalist, sprawling and immovable, a testament to human engineering, designed to make an enormous impact. It is, in every sense of the word, imposing. And everything about that, it seems to me, is at odds with the temperament of so much Estonian contemporary music, where the tone is more nuanced and focused, emphasising such things as contemplation and perhaps smallness, informed by the natural world, organicity and intuitive creativity, open to more than just what we immediately see and sense, less about making a big impact or impression than just unassumingly being one. The Linnahall is Tallinn’s ‘other’: as congruous to the city as an astronaut’s footprint on the surface of the moon.

This year, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the country’s annual Estonian Music Days, the festival hosted the ISCM World Music Days, and even before setting off for Estonia i wondered if the bringing together of these two very different festivals would result in a similar kind of incongruity. Would it be EMD slash WMD, adjacent to each other; EMD and WMD, happening together but separate entities; EMD within WMD, one embedded in the other; or even EMD versus WMD? In previous years as i’ve tentatively begun to know better the thought and practice underpinning Estonian contemporary music, i’ve been (and continue to be) fascinated at its relationship with the rest of the musical world. Such as it is: i think it’s fair to say, putting it mildly, that the relationship is a complex one; i’ve detected varying quantities of disinterest and/or bemusement, and occasionally even hostility, toward what goes on beyond the country’s borders. So the effect of the collision of these two particular festivals was always going to be extremely interesting. Read more

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Proms 2019: looking forward

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The programme for this year’s Proms season has been unveiled today. Looking at it from a contemporary music perspective, last year’s season has been revealed (as expected) to have been a one-off of surprising generosity. In 2018 we ended up with no fewer than 39 premières, whereas the usual figure is somewhere around half that. For 2019, contemporary music has been scaled back again, with a total of 30 world, European or UK premières.

The world premières dominate: there are 17 of them, from Zosha Di Castri (whose new work Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory gets the season up and running on the opening night), Hans Zimmer (yes, i know), Alexia Sloane, Outi Tarkiainen, Huw Watkins, Errollyn Wallen, Joanna Lee, Jonathan Dove, Dieter Ammann, Alissa Firsova, Ryan Wigglesworth, Dobrinka Tabakova, Linda Catlin Smith, Freya Waley-Cohen, Jonny Greenwood and, kicking off the last night knees-up, Daniel Kidane. There’s also a quartet of new works inspired by movements from J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suites by Stuart MacRae, Nico Muhly, Ailie Robertson and Stevie Wishart, and a joint world première birthday present for conductor Martyn Brabbins, put together by a veritable cluster of the great and the mainstream that will no doubt be the absolute epitome of a curate’s egg. The European and UK premières are by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Peter Eötvös, Benjamin Beckman, Detlev Glanert, John Luther Adams and Louis Andriessen. Overall, it’s hardly the most scintillatingly imaginative choice of composers, but then, it’s the Proms. The gender balance is starting to approach parity, so that’s at least something to celebrate.

Of the rest of the season, highlights include the chance to hear the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble together with the BBC Concerto Orchestra (Prom 11, 26 July), Messiaen‘s epic Des canyons aux étoiles… with pianist Nicolas Hodges (Prom 13, 28 July), James MacMillan‘s Proms favourite The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (Prom 19, 2 August), Takemitsu‘s exquisite Twill by Twilight (Prom 28, 8 August), Sofia Gubaidulina‘s Fairytale Poem (Prom 42, 18 August), Simon Rattle conducting the LSO in Varèse‘s Amériques (Prom 44, 20 August), Hugh Wood‘s Scenes from Comus (Prom 53, 29 August), and the inaugural concert of the all-new Knussen Chamber Orchestra (Proms at Cadogan Hall 8, 9 September).

The season begins in just over three months’ time, on 19 July; full details about all the concerts are available on the BBC Proms website and tickets go on sale on 11 May. Below is a summary of the premières: ** = world, † = European and * = UK. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 2)

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Nearly but not quite everything that took place at this year’s Borealis festival was light years away from the world of conventional concert performances. The most notable exception to this was the first event i attended, at the Nykirken on Friday evening, given by Sjøforsvarets musikkorps, the Norwegian Naval Forces Band, conducted by Ingar Bergby. They presented three works, two by Norwegian composers and the other by British composer James Clapperton. Written in 2012, Clapperton’s Doroga Zhizni was by far the most overtly earnest of the three pieces. A saxophone concerto written as a commemoration of the Siege of Leningrad, it was difficult to know to what extent this considerable layer of baggage helped or hindered the work. Which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Though its musical language was staunchly conservative, often channelling post-minimalistic prettiness, the interplay between soloist René Wilk (for whom the work was written) and the band was at times highly dramatic. This was the piece at its best; when Clapperton sought to tap into the emotional heft of his subject the music became a generic kind of insipid ‘In memoriam lite’, pseudo-emotive blather that did its inspiration neither any favours nor sufficient justice. It would perhaps have been best to hear the piece without any knowledge of its supposed backstory; as it was, reconciling what we heard with Clapperton’s aspirations proved all but impossible.

It was also quite difficult to square the notes for Therese B. Ulvo‘s Excavation – which spoke about digging away at the brilliance and beauty of the wind band, causing it to be “stripped down to its bones”, and exploring what remained – with the music itself, but in practice it hardly mattered. The piece threw together various opposites, initially managing to sound simultaneously refined and primitive (distantly evoking something of Stravinsky) and putting equal emphasis on melody and noise. In addition to this, while the band as a whole were generally in consensus about their activities and behaviour, the harmonic nature of the music floated completely freely. Only later did it more demonstratively draw nearer to the implications of its title, ideas becoming ‘stuck’ and being explored at length, almost as if they were being worn down and eroded. The weirdly fanfaric way Excavation developed a fin de siècle quality later on was fascinating and the latter half of the piece in particular was deeply engrossing, ultimately unleashing walls of noise so enormous they practically blew themselves out. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 1)

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“En festival for eksperimentall musikk”. That’s the strapline for arguably Norway’s most progressive contemporary music festival, Borealis, some of which i was fortunate to attend in Bergen last week. As straplines go it’s almost laughably simple, yet its implications turned out to be impressively far-reaching. The key word, of course, is ‘eksperimentall’, and while many new music festivals are very good at challenging musical boundaries, i’ve not encountered many that have so fearlessly challenged musical hierarchies and definitions. Of the former, there was no meaningful sense in which any particular compositional, performative or presentational aesthetic, approach or outlook – no matter how conventional or radical – was in any way privileged or favoured; of the latter, on numerous occasions i found myself not merely pondering the usual questions about intention and outcome and the like, but much more fundamental matters: “can this even be regarded as music?”. Experiments – true experiments, at least – inevitably take place within a context of belief and risk, contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with safety or comfort, and as such there was absolutely no doubting that, in the truest possible sense, everything i experienced at Borealis was to some degree “eksperimentall musikk”. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Sound Mass; Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra

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The final day of Iceland’s 2019 Dark Music Days festival was characterised by a back-and-forth between prosaic and profound. The penultimate concert i attended, titled ‘Sound Mass’, was an extreme case in point. Once again located in Harpa’s Kaldalón Hall, of the three works performed it was hard to do much more than shrug at Þórólfur Eiríksson‘s short electronic work Rafboð [electrical signals]. Though technically a brand new piece, receiving its first performance, it could have been composed half a century ago; not in itself a problem (the composer’s stated aim was to create a “pure old school electronic piece”), but its conveyor belt of ephemeral morsels were of literal passing interest only, superficial shapes that entirely failed to cohere into a meaningful larger whole. At 30 minutes, Circular Flow by Ríkharður H. Friðriksson was a lot bigger but hardly much better. To look at the plethora of pedals and boxes surrounding Ríkharður, processing the output from his pair of guitars, one expected something quite spectacular. Yet what ensued was like a cross between Aidan Baker and Markus Reuter, but lacking the brooding intensity of the former and the passionate, free-wheeling invention of the latter. It was hard to believe such a quantity of technology was required to create such elementary ambient, clichéd plinky-plonk guitar noodling utterly drenched beyond saturation point in reverberation. Circular Flow was far from an unpleasant experience – in fact it brought to mind soaking in the hot pots at the local swimming baths, the deeply relaxing way most of my days during the festival began – but it was impossible to take seriously music that so grandiloquently pretended that meandering was searching, and that artificial reverb and echo were a substitute for genuine profundity and depth. Read more

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