Festivals

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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Dark Music Days 2019: Caput Ensemble; Nordic Affect & Maja S K Ratkje

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Last Friday evening at the Dark Music Days we were back within Harpa’s Kaldalón hall (the cube-shaped space of which was disconcertingly impressive every time i entered it) for a concert given by a group new to me, Caput Ensemble, directed by Guðni Franzson. Having been bemused the previous day at hearing a collection of Icelandic orchestral works that were, in general, characterised more by their similarities than by their individuality, it was a relief to hear four new Icelandic ensemble pieces that could hardly have been more different from each other, in terms of both inspiration and execution. Furthermore, attention was turned away from the theme of nature that had governed the orchestral works, in favour of a more direct engagement and scrutiny of sound itself.

In the case of Rounds (being heard for the first time in a revised version) by one of Iceland’s most renowned composers Haukur Tómasson, the notion of the envelope – the way a sound begins, develops and ends – was being explored. It posed the question of, within this group context, what constituted a ‘sound’, which Haukur’s music suggested was not about individual instruments but the product of many combining to form communal sonic entities. This was initially reinforced by having each one of these entities conclude with a loud pizzicato accent like an unequivocal full stop, followed by a pause. As the piece developed it posed the additional question of what makes a sound into an idea – and indeed whether a sound can itself be an idea. This was provoked by the highly gestural nature of the material, forming something like swatches of sharply-defined patterned fabric that, over time, Haukur arranged into a patchwork, such that the joins were often sudden but clearly part of a bigger overall design. Though a touch superficial, Rounds was certainly enjoyable while it lasted. Gunnar A. Kristinsson‘s Rætur [roots], a world première, took inspiration from that most elemental of things, the overtones of the harmonic series, explored in three movements, each of which upped the microtonal ante. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Neko3; Heiða Árnadóttir

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One of the more unconventional performances at this year’s Dark Music Days took place last Thursday evening in the Hörpuhorn, an open exhibition space in the Harpa concert hall complex. It was given by the Copenhagen-based ensemble Neko3, a quartet comprising two percussionists (Kalle Hakosalo and Lorenzo Colombo), a keyboardist (Fei Nie) and a composer (Mads Emil Dreyer). Their concert was one of the most cleverly and effectively put together that i’ve witnessed in a long time, selecting diverse repertoire that shared something fundamental in common, namely the way they transformed the players into differing kinds of quasi-automatons.

Simon Løffler‘s b was therefore an excellent way to begin. As i’ve noted previously about this piece, it’s less about what it sounds like than what the players are required (forced) to do. In fact, focusing on the sound they’re making isn’t just to miss the point, but is a sure-fire way to becoming entrenched in exponential ennui. b is an essay in what we might call ‘meticulous monotony’, highlighting the basic fact that, in most cases, the ultimate end of composition involves giving performers detailed instructions and then hoping, praying and/or begging that they’ll faithfully carry them out, but pushed here to the point where interpretation is all but squeezed out, and skill and bloody-minded tenacity are all that remain. It’s not so much a musical composition as a piece of performance art, and the same was true of the work at the centre of the concert, Jeppe Ernst‘s Apoteose. Over the course of 15 minutes, its three performers become something worthy of Baudrillard: simulacra of robots designed to simulate humans. Even more than in the Løffler, their actions – many of which made little or no sound – were utmost repetitive and stilted: arms thrust aloft before returning to rest; hands briefly pounding against thighs; the turn of a head and an uncanny smile. It went beyond mere automatisation to a kind of atomisation: we longer saw people or even simulated people, but mere bits of simulated people, body parts literally going through the motions. An extreme example of meticulous monotony, although Apoteose was deeply unsettling i nonetheless felt completely unable to look away even for a moment. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Yrkja

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Judging from the way it’s usually discussed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that – overwhelmingly inspired by the country’s uniquely dramatic combination of earth, water, ice and fire – Icelandic music was all about, and only about, nature. It’s therefore interesting, in hindsight, to note that it wasn’t until the sixth day of the Dark Music Days that the subject of nature even crossed my mind. However, when it finally did, last Thursday evening at the concert given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daníel Bjarnason, it didn’t merely cross my mind but practically filled it to capacity. Hitherto, my impression of Icelandic contemporary music, irrespective of my opinion about individual pieces, was one of variety, music characterised by diversity and difference. Whereas now, sitting in Harpa’s large Eldborg Hall, hearing five substantial Icelandic orchestral works, i was staggered by their similarities. Textures, textures everywhere.

The archetype for this use of texture was demonstrated with considerable subtlety in Lendh by Canada-born, Iceland-based composer and cellist Veronique Vaka, the first of three world premières in the concert. Her programme note was all about nature, concerned with the sensory impressions of landscape, inspired particularly by the geothermal area at Krýsuvík (in south-west Iceland). In general – the primary aspect of this archetype – perception of the overall mass effect was of much greater importance than individual actions. Thus the orchestra articulated a network of shifting textures punctuated regularly by swells, as if something were churning and bubbling in the music’s depths. This led to the sensation that the orchestra was an organism slowly breathing, ripples running across its surface with such variety of colour and shape and detail it brought to mind (to switch metaphors) the changes in pigmentation on the skin of a chameleon. Music that focuses exclusively on large-scale textural impressions like this can often become drab and unfocused, yet Vaka instilled in Lendh a real sense of pent-up power and potential: its ‘climaxes’ were barely larger than the swells that had preceded them but packed almost the same weight as a full-on tutti due to the palpable implication of what they could unleash if they really wanted to. A striking and lovely piece.

The same couldn’t be said for María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, also a world première, the ideas of which could have been lifted straight out of a movie. The title of the work – which the composer claims “came early in the process” but just before the festival was still being listed as ‘new work’, so perhaps was more of an afterthought – seemed arbitrary, entirely unrelated to what was essentially a tired exercise in basic, reheated filmic tropes. This was texture at its most ineffectual and clichéd, and while Oceans had its moments – including one where in the midst of a climax the harmony became complicated and briefly clustered – it otherwise lacked any significant memorable ideas. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Zoë Martlew

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One of the plagues that continues to afflict most contemporary music festivals is ‘première-itis’, an acute obsession with presenting loudly-trumpeted world premières at the expense of providing opportunities for second, third or indeed nth performances. It was a relief, therefore, that this year’s Dark Music Days (which was otherwise similarly infected) included a number of concerts ​with virtually no premières at all, the first of which was a recital given last Thursday by UK cellist Zoë Martlew.

The concert took place in the imposing cuboid space of Kaldalón Hall, part of Reykjavík’s flagship concert hall complex Harpa, with a programme focusing on Danish and Norwegian music. However, it was a piece by English (Denmark-based) composer Juliana Hodkinson that turned out to be the most flamboyantly memorable, though not primarily for musical reasons. Titled Scrape, it lives up to its name by stipulating that the cellist should scrape heavily not just their instrument but also against a piece of metal, which Martlew had realised with a cheese grater tied to her right foot. The first attempt to perform the piece ended after just a few seconds when Martlew’s bow was spectacularly shredded, its horsehair loosely flapping around; it was hard to tell whether this was a direct consequence of its grinding against the strings or just a coincidence. The second attempt, Martlew having dashed off-stage for a replacement, was more successful inasmuch as the bow held together, although the cheese grater was now doing its best to rebel against Martlew’s actions, turning at 90° to her foot, thereby making it difficult to control. Whether all of this effort was worth it is a good question. Scrape could (charitably) be described as a celebration of the essence of music-making, of the friction essential to the production of all sound, though the way its relentlessly screeching soundworld soon lost much of its impact and power plus the lack of a cogent shape or structure made the piece an exceedingly dull experience. Read more

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