Festivals

Only Connect 2019 (Part 1)

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There’s something absolutely right about the bringing together of Norway’s Only Connect – a festival that, as its name implies, encourages one to question (inter)connections between ostensibly disparate musics – with Tectonics, Ilan Volkov’s peripatetic festival the name of which evokes fundamental, underlying bedrocks that continually meet, connect and rupture. Taking place last week in the city of Stavanger, in the south-west of Norway, it’s only the second time the two festivals have conjoined, and the results were often appropriately volatile. That being said, one of the things that struck me powerfully during the festival – and this echoes my experience of Only Connect last year – was its almost complete lack of ostentation. The impacts it made were frequent and deep, but there was rarely an overt sense that this is what was actively being sought by the composers and performers. i’ve long felt that a certain kind of nonchalance – by which i mean the avoidance (or at least, the disguising) of obvious signs of audience direction or manipulation – is essential to the most powerful musical experiences, and at Only Connect that was its prevailing character, and i’ve no doubt this was a major factor in making those impacts as deep as they were. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

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Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating. Read more

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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. Read more

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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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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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Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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On Wednesday, the Dark Music Days moved out of Reykjavík to the arts centre of Hafnarborg in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður, where the Icelandic Guitar Trio – Þórarinn Sigurbergsson, Þröstur Þorbjörnsson and Svanur Vilbergsson – gave a recital featuring three native works alongside music from the UK and USA.

The Icelandic pieces shared a general tendency towards the conservative and traditional. This was most demonstrably the case in Fimm Skissur [Five Sketches] by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, composed in 2016 but only now receiving its first performance. Everything about it felt rooted in convention, from the fast-slow alternations of its movements to the language of its lyricism, which veered between cheerful Classical simplicity and a more intricate Baroque tendency. The piece was most interesting in the two slow movements where the music sounded least like an exercise in pastiche. The Andante won me over due to the fastidiousness of its counterpoint, which proved hypnotic, while the Lento exhibited a soft delicacy that was particularly lovely at its dying away conclusion. The rest was simply too generic and impersonal to make any kind of meaningful connection. Ari Hálfdán Aðalgeirsson‘s Gaia, another première, was also characterised by fastidiously-composed material, as if each and every note had been positioned and aligned with the greatest care – though never sounding remotely finicky or theoretical. The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping one’s expectations. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: The Riot Ensemble

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It could hardly be more perfect that the 2019 Dark Music Days – Iceland’s premier contemporary music festival – should have begun last Saturday in complete darkness. This was in Reykjavík’s Nordic House, where the most valiant effort had been made to block out every trace of light for The Riot Ensemble’s world première performance of Georg Friedrich Haas‘ 70-minute Solstices.

Darkness has been a recurring feature of Haas’ work in recent years, from the sporadic lights-out episodes of in vain to the complete blackout of String Quartet No. 10. Every time it occurs in a composition, one is forced to deal with, or at last come to terms with, the darkness, and this was a significant preoccupation during the first few minutes of Solstices. I found myself considering the fact that I often listen with my eyes closed during concerts, and the extent to which this differed from the darkness being imposed on me. But of course there is a huge difference, not just physical but psychological, between simply closing our eyes (thereby shutting down that sense) and having our eyes open but receiving nothing back.

The second thing I found I had to deal with was the technical achievement happening before me: ten musicians, performing in total darkness and therefore, by necessity, entirely from memory. That’s somewhat mind-blowing of itself. It made me think of other artistic technical achievements – such as the long take camera work of Hitchcock or Alejandro Iñárritu – that also have the capacity, if we (and the artists) aren’t careful, to distract from and take us out of the art being created, due to the surprise and incredulity that they cause. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Arditti Quartet + Jake Arditti

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My 2018 HCMF experience came to an end yesterday in what is now the traditional way, at 1pm in St Paul’s Hall in the company of the Arditti Quartet. Four years ago, they tackled the first seven quartets by James Dillon; on this occasion their concert included the next two instalments, receiving their UK and world premières respectively.

i can remember well how the experience of hearing Dillon’s quartets 1 to 7 at HCMF 2014 (in chronological order) sounded like an exercise in diminishing returns. The earlier quartets were striking and impressive, but became gradually more impenetrable to the point that they simply felt weak and listless. Based on this first encounter with the Eighth and Ninth Quartets, that trajectory isn’t showing significant signs up an upturn. There was some interest to be found in the Eighth, Dillon dividing the Ardittis in two pairs that took it in turns to slither around each other, eventually unifying as a group whereupon their material began to halt and fragment. All of this had something nascent about it, beginning with a soupy miasma and arriving at building blocks, though this was the limit of the work’s scope, ending with the prospect of forming into a tangible idea, its closing moments vaguely cadential. In some respects the Ninth was similar – perhaps even a continuation of sorts – as if extant musical ideas were trying to emerge into its anonymous soundworld: there was the sense of a chord progression poised to break out, though to what extent this was real or just a manifestation of pareidolia is hard to say. Subsequently falling into patterns of simplicity and/or solemnity, broken up rapid passagework either en masse or individually, it was hard not to conclude that, as in much of Dillon’s last few quartets, this was a kind of ‘theoretical’ or even ‘scientific’ music, experimenting with materials, quantities, weights and distributions to see what happens. Considering how much emotional energy and passion is found in most of Dillon’s music, it was strange and disappointing to feel kept at such a distance in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Sciarrino: Carnaval, hcmf// mixtape

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The last couple of years have been good for one of the UK’s most impressive new music groups, Explore Ensemble. Two years ago, i first heard them at HCMF on ‘Shorts’ day, giving a gripping account of Gérard Grisey‘s Talea, and they returned to the festival last year to give a full-scale concert including ambitious music by Enno Poppe and Patricia Alessandrini. Last night, Explore returned to HCMF for the third time, teaming up with EXAUDI vocal ensemble and conductor James Weeks for a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s vocal cycle Carnaval. At this rate goodness only knows what they’ll end up doing next year.

When i’ve written previously about Sciarrino’s vocal works, such as the 12 Madrigali at the 2017 Louth Contemporary Music Festival and (much more briefly) the Responsorio delle Tenebre in my 2012 Lent series, it’s been impossible not to address his very particular approach to writing for voices. Specifically, his unique kind of halting delivery, articulating the text as brisk, tiny utterances that seem to be dragged down by their own weight the moment they emerge from the singers’ mouths, somewhere between a moan and a sigh. It’s an approach that, on first hearing, can seem extremely mannered or even stylised, but the more one spends time with it, acclimatising to it, the more one realises that this is not an affectation but the basic vernacular or dialect of Sciarrino’s vocal language in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Divertimento Ensemble, Stockhausen: Oktophonie

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When writing about United Instruments of Lucilin’s concert last Tuesday i noted how the only thing the four works they played had in common was their complete dissimilarity to each other. Yesterday evening, in St Paul’s Hall, we experienced the opposite: four pieces of Italian music performed by Divertimento Ensemble that, while obviously unique in most important respects, seemed very much to inhabit similar environments, or perhaps even disparate regions of the same soundworld.

A great deal of the material in the concert could be characterised as either timorous or, at the very least, hesitant. In Francesco Filidei‘s Finito ogni gesto, a work commemorating author Edoardo Sanguineti, it was merely a starting point. Soft clicks, breathy pitches, distant resonances, rumbles from somewhere beneath (or beyond) – all of this was enticing enough, but then Filidei introduced something really marvellous: a cello in the guise of a musical saw, articulated (by Martina Rudic) as a terminally unstable melodic entity. It was one of the most lovely openings of anything i’ve heard all week. It was just a starting point, though, a melancholic overture to what became much more aggressive. Filidei set up large, forceful rolling waves of tumult, a sequence of climaxes crowned by popping balloons and a wild growling horn solo. An intense manifestation of grief, perhaps, one that became achingly poignant in the work’s closing moments, reduced to quietude and whistles, solemn drum thuds, and the accented turning of pages. Read more

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