Lent Series

John Tavener – Flood of Beauty (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

i’m bringing this year’s Lent Series to an end with the last large-scale work by one of Britain’s most strange and singular composers, John Tavener. Tavener died in November 2013, and in some respects it would be hard to go out with a bigger bang than with Flood of Beauty which, though composed many years earlier (between July 2006 and July 2007), only received its first performance in the autumn of 2014. At 104 minutes’ duration, the piece is significantly shorter than many of Tavener’s multiple-hour works – none more so than the 7-hour behemoth The Veil of the Temple (2001) – but the piece is nonetheless massive in its own right, and for reasons other than just its (still very lengthy) time-span.

In his later life, the nature and articulation of Tavener’s religious outlook became increasingly nebulous and non-specific, moving away from clear Orthodox inspirations to embrace other modes of thought and belief, ultimately favouring of a more Universalist mindset. In terms of the effect that this had on his work – from both compositional and listening perspectives –  i’m not sure it really made that much of a difference. As i’ve discussed previously, Tavener always tended to take a de facto approach to the presentation of religiosity in his work. Far from attempting to sonically contextualise his beliefs – for example, dramatising them, or at least giving them a kind of parabolic or allegorical quality – he instead presented them in an unequivocal, fait accompli fashion, likening this to the experiencing of entering an Orthodox church and being instantly surrounded and enclosed by decorative glory. In practice, the experience was usually akin to skipping over the first two volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy and leaping straight into the Paradiso; if transcendence is all you’re after then perhaps the result is satisfying enough – you get, in essence, what you came for – though one can’t help feeling that the culmination of Dante’s experience is so much more emotionally (and, if you like, spiritually) meaningful and relatable in light of the incredible journey to arrive at that point. Perhaps Tavener felt that the real world – the concert hall, and the audience sitting within it – was the context to which his music provided some kind of contrasting quasi-divine apogee. But for me, the way his music always tended to hit the ground running, so to speak – assuming rather than demonstrating; taking for granted rather than attempting to convince – seemed the epitome of preaching to the converted: perfect if you already shared his outlook; alienating and downright eccentric if you didn’t. This applies to a great deal of his work (and not only his, of course), both the more purely Orthodox as well as the later, more Universalist compositions, so from a listening perspective the only significant change in this regard is the sense that the music has undergone a shift from what we might conventionally regard as ‘sacred music’ to something less easily categorisable, though aesthetically sharing aspects of New Age music. In this respect, a title like Flood of Beauty is telling; it evokes… something, though what that something is is ill-defined and subjective. Read more

Tags: , ,

Collin Thomas – April Triptych

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 2 Comments

The penultimate work i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series is both the longest and, possibly (depending on your perspective), the simplest. Collin ThomasApril Triptych was released nine years ago on the long-defunct, Berlin-based netlabel Resting Bell. There are a number of reasons why the piece is interesting, but it’s gained a new quality most recently as society has entered its current, ongoing climate of lockdown and isolation. The piece is rooted in field recordings, and at a time when it’s not possible to roam and explore the landscape as we might wish to, field recordings are a precious reminder of the massive and miniature multifaceted natural wonders out there that, for the time being, have become out of bounds.

The field recording in April Triptych is a neutral one, inasmuch as it doesn’t sound obviously manipulated or edited (actually, it comprises three recordings made in the morning, afternoon and evening), and is less about presenting specific sound objects than providing a broad ‘open’ atmosphere for the piece to inhabit. We hear generalised ambiance, leaves and trees rustling, birds calling and singing, the gentle hubbub of traffic, the purring of a nearby engine, all of which forms a passive sonic backdrop. Two additional layers are added to this. The first begins a little under two minutes in: slow-moving harmonies articulated by soft-edged sine tones, their timbre akin to an organ. According to Thomas’ notes on the piece, these drawn out chords are “an extremely elongated renaissance madrigal”, but they are sufficiently extended that they instead take on a nebulous kind of connectivity: sometimes the chords seem to be drones, inviting no sense of a harmonic past or future of which they form a part; yet at other times such a sense is distantly projected, though rarely to the extent that we would exactly think of them as “chord progressions” (there is, if you deliberately listen for it, a cadential finality at the very end). The second additional layer, which first appears around 12 minutes in, is its behavioural polar opposite: brief, sporadic piano gestures, sprinklings of notes like small splashes on the surface of a millpond, their droplets and ripples instantly gone. Read more

Tags: , ,

Harrison Birtwistle – Semper Dowland, semper dolens (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 3 Comments

Last autumn, when i began thinking about this Lent Series, one of the first works i intended to include was by Harrison Birtwistle, his opera The Last Supper. However, in light of the events that have transpired in the last couple of months, and which now overshadow everything, i’m instead going to explore a different work of Birtwistle’s that i found myself drawn to again on Tuesday morning, in the wake of the previous evening’s announcement of the more stringent living conditions in the UK. Subtitled ‘theatre of melancholy’, Semper Dowland, semper dolens is a 45-minute work for voice and small ensemble that, as its name makes clear, draws heavily on the music of Renaissance composer John Dowland. Dowland himself wrote a piece bearing that title (which translates as “always Dowland, always doleful”) that was published in a 1604 collection Lachrimæ or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans. Birtwistle’s work dates back a little over a decade, and is structured as an extended sequence alternating instrumental episodes and songs. The episodes are based on and named after the septet of pavans featured in the 1604 collection:

  1. Lachrymæ Antiquæ (“old tears”; the music of which would subsequently become the well-known song Flow, my teares)
  2. Lachrymæ Antiquæ Novæ (“old tears renewed”)
  3. Lachrymæ Gementes (“sighing tears”)
  4. Lachrymæ Tristes (“sad tears”)
  5. Lachrymæ Coactæ (“forced tears”)
  6. Lachrymæ Amantis (“a lover’s tears”)
  7. Lachrymæ Veræ (“true tears”)

Interspersed between these episodes are six Dowland songs, five of which are taken from his three books “of Songs or Ayres” published between 1597 and 1603: Come, heavy Sleep from Book 1, I saw my lady weep and Sorrow, stay from Book 2, and Lend your ears to my sorrow and I must complain from Book 3. The sixth song is In darkness let me dwell, one of Dowland’s most famous songs that was published separately a few years later. While the instrumental episodes are a more personal response to the Dowland material, Birtwistle’s approach with these songs has been simply to arrange them for voice and harp, leaving them otherwise unaltered. Read more

Tags: , , ,

JLIAT – J / S / A / E

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

As COVID-19 gradually succeeds in bringing the entire globe to a depressing standstill, it seems as good a time as any for my Lent Series to look at some large-scale works that, from one perspective, could be said to be doing exactly the same. i’m usually very good at remembering first contact with music that makes a deep impression on me, but for the life of me i can’t recall how i first encountered the work of James Whitehead, aka JLIAT. i know it was a very long time ago, at least 15 years, and my hunch is that it was via his sequence of long-form drone pieces that constitute the earliest portion of his exceptionally eclectic output. Those last few words are vital: while drones have a place of significance, Whitehead’s musical outlook is one of the most radically and refreshingly questioning that i’ve ever come across, probing hard into the limits of how and what we define as music and even sound, particularly with regard to the way it’s represented, reproduced and reconstituted in the digital domain. To that end, his work is just as concerned, if not more so, with drone’s polar opposite, the ostensible chaos of noise, and beyond this it’s fair to regard more than a little of his work as conceptual in nature, as much about a sonic idea than a sonic artefact, though in all cases that artefact is always worth spending time with. Furthermore, while there’s a fair bit of whimsy in the JLIAT back catalogue, i’m always impressed at how deeply serious and considered it all is; it may be fun, but it’s never frivolous. Read more

Tags: , , , ,

The Hafler Trio – An Answer

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Lent Series | Leave a comment

Let’s turn our attention to drones. The respective roles of time and material are perhaps nowhere more controversial – and polarising – than in drone-based music. Even if you find yourself drawn into the complexities of one form of drone, another can push you away with its relative monotony. For precisely this reason, i’ve always been fascinated by drone music, and it’s an idiom that includes some of my absolute favourite compositions. i wrote about one of them some years ago as part of my ‘Contemporary Epics’ series: The Hafler Trio‘s miraculously wonderful ‘Trilogy in Three Parts‘. As well as being a work i return to very often, at the start of this year i had the pleasure of discussing it as part of an ongoing series of conversations between Andrew McKenzie and Thaddée Caillosse, exploring the Hafler Trio legacy. The episode in question focused specifically on the Trilogy, and our lengthy conversation touched on a considerable range of topics related to and arising from it, along the way revealing fascinating insights into the thought and compositional processes behind the music, plus more than a few tangential asides taking in philosophy, listening practices and love. Anyone interested in The Hafler Trio and wanting to glean more about McKenzie’s approach to his work may well find this conversation to be of interest. It’s available via the Simply Superior Bandcamp site, along with plenty of other juicy things pertinent to the entire Hafler Trio oeuvre. Dive in, and be prepared for a long swim.

Even more recently, McKenzie has dusted off and polished up his three contributions to the first series of releases by Fovea Hex. The Explanation, The Discussion and An Answer were originally released as limited edition bonus discs accompanying the EPs Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007). While many Fovea Hex releases have included accompanying remixes of their music, the three Hafler Trio pieces are rather more ambitious, best regarded as self-contained electronic works into which fragments and morsels of Fovea Hex material have been to a greater or lesser degree folded, embedded and woven. A decade and a half on from their original release, McKenzie has released a standalone edition of these pieces under a new, typically Haflerian, collective title: This is Our Problem: What Will Our Joy Be Then?. Read more

Tags: , , , , , ,

Rebecca Saunders – Yes (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

One of the foci of this year’s Lent Series exploring larger-scale works is where time and material become convoluted. In the case of the next work i’m exploring, this kind of convolution applies not only to the music but also to the text that inspired it. Yes by Rebecca Saunders is a work derived from, rather than a setting of, the epic final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Comprising just eight thought ‘utterances’ – to call them ‘sentences’ isn’t quite right as they mostly lack closing (or indeed any) punctuation – yet extending for over 24,000 words, this episode is known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, a dream-like torrent of memory and reflection run amok, much of it highly emotionally- and/or sexually-charged. Parsing such an overwhelming outpouring of words is no easy task, and personally speaking i prefer to listen to it spoken aloud, transforming it into a stunning two-hour tapestry in which events from throughout Molly’s life are recounted in somewhat arbitrary, non sequitur fashion. While we can infer importance of these events from the simple fact they are being recounted, it can be more difficult to discern the relative significance of these events as well as their associated emotional baggage: love, rage, hope, regret, anguish and ecstasy are all in there, often simultaneously.

Saunders’ 75-minute response to the text creates a musical analogue of this experience. A work for soprano and 19 soloists, Yes disperses the players throughout the performance space, establishing a sound environment that the audience is positioned within. One could fancifully regard this arrangement as like sitting inside Molly Bloom’s head, being surrounded by her tangled criss-crossing recollections and sentiments fired out by the neural network of musicians all around us. My own experience of the work, at the UK première that began the 2018 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was very much like this. On that occasion i commented in my original critique how the visual aspect of the work – as with many of Saunders’ works – felt like a distraction, and spending more time with the piece since then has reinforced that impression. Yes was admittedly performed in relatively low light, but being able to listen without any visual distractions – not inappropriate, i think, as it would be pushing it to describe Yes as having a ‘theatrical’ performance aspect – has greatly enhanced and deepened the experience. Furthermore, while Yes is something of a synthesis of Saunders’ two compositional modes – the players either individuated (for 24 of the work’s 25 modules) or united (in single module Nether, the only part of the piece to be conducted) – sonically speaking it isn’t easy to tell where the music switches between these modes. Read more

Tags: , ,

Chubby Wolf – The Last Voices

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Lent Series | Leave a comment

The next piece i’m exploring in this year’s Lent Series is The Last Voices by Danielle Baquet-Long, who released her solo work under the name Chubby Wolf. At 84 minutes long, it’s by far her longest piece, and the more i’ve spent time with it over the years, the more i’ve become convinced that it’s one of her best. It’s one of a number of works that her husband Will Long has made available since her death in 2009, each of which has testified further to the depth, scope and subtlety of Baquet-Long’s skill and talent. Her loss remains a profound one.

The way The Last Voices harnesses time is fascinating. It’s tempting to ponder whether the piece ultimately does anything or goes anywhere – but that immediately prompts a necessary follow-up consideration: how do we define ‘doing’ or ‘going’? The opening minutes of the piece act as something of a paradigm for everything that follows. It’s like listening to a half-focused or blurred ‘tonic’ chord gently oscillating on its axis. As such it sounds resolved yet not exactly final; there’s a prevailing impression that there’s more to come, though equally a sense that if the music were to stop right now it would sound completely natural and make perfect sense. As time passes, it consolidates the feeling that something fundamental – in both musical and non-musical senses – is omnipresent, yet Baquet-Long has allowed considerable scope for the music to move and roam, to explore and grow, never sounding constricted. This movement is generally, though very loosely, articulated in what could be thought of as extended exhalations, punctuated with brief gathering points to draw breath that also allow a moment or two for the preceding resonance (sonic and internal) to be savoured. Read more

Tags: , , , ,

Kenneth Kirschner – January 1, 2019

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Lent Series | 3 Comments

It’s the first day of Lent, and also therefore the start of this year’s 5:4 Lent Series. Three years ago my focus was on miniature works, and for 2020 i’m going in the opposite direction, exploring compositions that occupy larger-scale durations. However, this is not simply about pieces that are ‘epic’ (something i’ve examined before) but more about the way time is used (by the composer) and perceived (by the listener). For that reason, in general i’m not going to be looking at sectional works or cycles, which are lengthy simply because they’re made up of numerous individual component parts, or operas, which are invariably longer due to the fact that it takes a while to tell a decent narrative. That being said, there will be exceptions to both of those exclusions.

i’m beginning this year’s Lent Series with a recent work by a composer who has made me think more about time than anyone else: Kenneth Kirschner. Kirschner’s work has intrigued and fascinated me for many years. On the one hand, in many respects i feel i know it well; i’ve spent time with everything he’s made available over the last couple of decades – which, depending how you classify what counts as a ‘composition’, amounts to as many as 185 pieces – and have written about his music on numerous occasions, most extensively in the 2014 book Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner (available as a free PDF download). It was Kirschner’s work that inspired and helped shape my thinking about what i ultimately called the ‘steady state’, the structural concept in which short-term change and long-term stasis combine to create a never-/ever-changing musical tapestry that’s always the same, yet always new. That description could almost be said to apply to Kirschner’s output itself; many of his compositions evoke, allude to or at least resemble many of his other compositions: always the same, yet always new. Yet for all the knowledge and familiarity with it, Kirschner’s music keeps you on your toes, regularly coming as a surprise. Always the same, always new. Read more

Tags: , , , , ,

Veronique Vaka – Lendh (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 1 Comment

To bring this year’s Lent Series to a close, i’m returning to a piece i first heard a few months ago, during Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival. One of the most memorable works from that week in Reykjavík was Lendh, by Canadian composer and cellist Veronique Vaka. In her programme note, Vaka talks about the work’s inspirational roots in nature, specifically to a geothermal area in south-west Iceland called Krýsuvík. Lendh can therefore be thought of as something like a ‘subjective translation’ of that region into sound. Although Vaka isn’t originally from Iceland (though she is based there), her piece is very much part of a prevailing orchestral tendency in Iceland (also prominent in the music of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir) toward impressionism, in which the qualities and forces of nature are not so much depicted as become metaphors for abstract musical impressions.

Fundamental to the way Vaka uses the orchestra in Lendh is the creation of a large, multifaceted but cohesive unit that sounds just as much rooted in biology as geology. There’s a sense of groups of instruments acting as component parts of a larger organic entity – one might almost call them muscles or tendons – that together act to make the music move and flex. The key thing about this is that the orchestra is working as one, where individual actions are of lesser importance (in terms of being perceived) than the larger formations of which they are a crucial part. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Marc Sabat – The Luminiferous Aether (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 2 Comments

What happens in a composition, both in terms of moment-by-moment activity as well as long-term direction, can sound highly organised and micro-managed or spontaneous and accidental (not necessarily reflecting the way in which they were composed, of course). More interesting is when a piece blurs that distinction and sounds like a complex mixture of the two, as is the case in Canadian composer Marc Sabat‘s 2018 orchestral work The Luminiferous Aether. The work’s title comes from the mysterious material once postulated to exist throughout the universe, comprised of a substance that would act as the medium for carrying light (luminiferous) while, miraculously, having no effect at all on any of the bodies moving through space. The aether was disproven conclusively in the late 1880s and subsequently consigned to history with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Yet the historical conception of the aether – of something manifesting everywhere yet being neither understandable, explainable nor detectable – is one of the driving forces behind Sabat’s piece.

As i’ve already indicated, there’s a clear sense pervading The Luminiferous Aether that order and chance are equally likely to be the cause of what happens in the music. It’s not difficult to hear the work as akin to a journey through space, randomly encountering varying quantities of density and void, disarray and alignment. As such, it brings to mind Poul Anderson’s 1970 hard sci-fi novel Tau Zero, where a damaged spacecraft – stuck in the unfortunate position of being in an unstoppable state of permanent acceleration – passes through huge intergalactic distances in relatively short periods of time, arbitrarily encountering regions of emptiness, matter, pattern and noise. Quite apart from its resemblance to what happens in The Luminiferous Aether, what i also like about that analogy – though i’m not for one moment implying the music has any connection at all to the novel – is that it introduces a cosmological aspect that might not suggest itself when listening to the piece, that of vast distances and speed manifesting in apparently slow rates of movement and change. It’s a valuable paradox to hold in mind. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 9

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

Though it lasts only 23 minutes, is cast in a single movement and was described by its composer as being “very modest”, Peter Maxwell DaviesSymphony No. 9 is a seriously substantial, thought-provoking work. Composed in 2012, those of a more republican persuasion might be put off by it being dedicated to “Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee”, but the symphony is about as far from being strewn with bunting as it’s possible to get. It seems to me that the work is, in fact, focused on Britain, and in a way that will always offer food for thought, but which at the present time in particular, with the lamentable, seemingly never-ending wranglings over Brexit potentially reaching their denouement in the coming days, provides a whole lot more to contemplate and consider.

The symphony portrays an entity, a body, represented by the orchestra, that is essentially at war with itself. Max presents this civil war – made to sound deliberately militaristic from the outset – in the first part of the work (though nominally in a single movement, it is structured in two large, connected parts), and while it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the cause of the conflict stems from the brass, the reality is more subtle: they just happen to be the loudest and most demonstrative group. In truth, pretty much every section of the orchestra is a distinct faction making no meaningful attempt to integrate with or accommodate the others. At best, there’s a certain amount of ‘listening’ going on, though increasingly the wind, strings and brass all tend to talk over each other, trying to shout each other down and occasionally hurling abstract insults. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Judit Varga – …alles Fleisch… (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls…

Words from the biblical book of 1 Peter, set to music in Brahms’ German Requiem and thereby alluded to in the title of Hungarian composer Judit Varga‘s orchestral work …alles Fleisch…. Composed in 2013, the piece commemorates flautist Zoltán Gyöngyössy, who died two years earlier. In her programme note (see below), Varga describes the piece as a requiem, though the soundworld is quite far removed from the kind of connotations that that word might immediately suggest. Certainly, considering the meaning of the word ‘requiem’, there’s very little rest in the piece. Or, rather, what traces of rest there are are militated against by a continual strain of tense, fidgety restlessness. Sometimes these two elements seem superimposed, as if they were parallel but disconnected from each other, while elsewhere they seem to be permeating each other in a complex, discomfiting amalgam of mood. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Arne Gieshoff – Burr (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

“You put structures in place, and then they kind of surprise you.” Words said by German composer Arne Gieshoff prior to the first performance of his orchestral work Burr. This seems entirely appropriate, since the piece takes its name and inspiration from burr puzzles, in which pieces of wood are arranged to form complex interlocking geometric shapes. In his piece, Gieshoff has sought less to suggest the geometry than the complexity, and perhaps also more than a little of the frustration that can arise when attempting to solve these puzzles. As such, the work’s six-minute duration veers unpredictably back-and-forth between episodes of energy and enervation.

The result of these wild oscillations is that each successive episode tends to sound more extreme than its siblings. So the more energetic passages, which begin the piece, progress from sounding muscular and flamboyant – an exercise in blatant showing-off – to a more desperate and confused kind of activity. The trumpets in particular, wonderfully busy in these sections, increasingly take on the quality of a bunch of mad birds chattering randomly away at each other all at once, while the percussion seem obsessed with filling their bars with ever more crashes and splashes. Another way of putting it, and it’s perhaps an odd word to use, is that there’s something dutiful about these episodes: gradually less about a simple display of energy than the compulsive need to appear to be energetic. It’s a subtle and fascinating shift. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Harrison Birtwistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 1 Comment

Fanfares are strange things. Short, loud and flamboyant, like hearing an introduction being given by the world’s biggest extrovert. Back in the days when i flirted with being a percussionist, my role in fanfares seemed to amount to little more than providing brief, barely-controlled crashes and bangs at carefully-coordinated moments; and as a composer, the one time i’ve written one was when my then-fiancée asked me to compose the music to accompany her walking down the aisle at our wedding. Up to a point, convention took over: there weren’t any bangs or crashes (being for two trumpets and organ, only an accident could have caused them) but they remain 90 of the most overblown seconds i’ve ever created.

Yet – maybe that’s exactly what a fanfare should be, maybe that’s the point of them. It’s conceivable that fanfares provide a kind of pre-concert equivalent of the post-concert applause: a huge burst of cacophony that cleanses the palate and clears the air in readiness for what is about to follow. ‘Twas ever thus, perhaps, though ’twill not always be the case, and Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest addition to this particular genre certainly goes beyond standard issue bombast. A work for wind, brass and percussion composed to herald the start of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2018/19 concert series, Donum Simoni MMXVIII is, at its title translates, a gift for the orchestra’s conductor, Simon Rattle.

Read more

Tags: , , ,

Catherine Lamb – portions transparent/opaque (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 2 Comments

I am interested in the long introduction (unfolding) form, in elemental tonal interaction, in aggregation and augmentation, in liminal perceptual states, shifts in density, the filtered atmosphere, and intense, focused experiences.

This is how US composer Catherine Lamb summarised her music to me in 2017. On that occasion, they served as an introduction to her then new piece Prisma Interius V, being premièred at that year’s Proms, but they apply just as much to portions transparent/opaque, composed in 2014. The work’s title hints at the presence of light, and this is primarily explored in an atmosphere of constantly shifting colour and clarity. In addition to these aspects, Lamb throws in a couple more, titling the work’s two movements ‘expand’ and ‘saturate’ respectively, suggesting something of the way this atmosphere manifests within its broader theoretical space or boundaries.

Using just the strings of the orchestra, ‘expand’ sets up thin, drawn-out lines of microtonal pitch, shaded with varying quantities of noise. Initially, though faint, these lines are concentrated in a small space, like the beam of a flashlight in thick fog. The fact that it’s obviously a tight cluster makes no difference to the integrity of what is practically a single, multifaceted line. Only very slowly does the titular expansion start to take effect, the widening harmonic palette articulated in alternation with brief hiatuses. Read more

Tags: , , ,

John Oswald – I’d love to turn (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

Many people will likely have first encountered the work of Canadian composer John Oswald through one of two things: either the wonderfully weird collection of ‘Mystery Tapes’ he began putting out in the early 1980s or, more likely, his 1989 album that gave the name to a new form of musical creation: Plunderphonic. Oswald’s entire career has been dominated by this approach to composition, initially by plundering existing recordings that became the basis for intricate and deeply irreverent electronic collages – the most mind-boggling being his 19-minute Plexure from 1993 – and later by pilfering bits and bobs of material as the basis for mangled and reimagined instrumental works. Since 2004 these have formed part of a series given the, from a linguistic perspective, equally plunderphonic title ‘Rascali Klepitoire’, including I’d love to turn, which was composed in 2014.

Oswald has used three compositions from the 1960s as source material for the piece, all very different from each other: The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Terry Riley’s In C, which in the context of I’d love to turn are deconstructed and distilled so that their respective essences remain, providing rhythmic drive and harmonic clarity (Riley), nebulous transforming textures (Ligeti) and a simple gestural motif (Beatles). What Oswald makes from these essential elements has the heightened, off-kilter eccentricity of a hallucination or a state of delirium. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Naomi Pinnock – The Field is Woven (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 4 Comments

The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.

It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The Field is Woven this sequence sounds positively hurried. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir – In Praise of Darkness (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 1 Comment

One of the things i particularly enjoy when listening is the sense of not knowing where i am, uncertain of what exactly the music is doing or where it’s going: of being kept, for a time at least, in the dark. It’s this kind of ‘darkness’ that i think typifies the orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness, by Icelandic composer Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir.

Much of the work’s first half exhibits an interesting ambivalence, caught between impulses towards reticence and confidence. The latter can be heard both in a repeated-note idea that appears near the beginning, starting in low flutes and migrating through the winds, but most strongly in loud, deep notes intoned by the brass. The former manifests in a more global sense of caution that pervades the whole orchestra, in which sounds feel placed with fastidious consideration and care, and where no particular idea has sufficient impetus to cause a catalytic effect. As a consequence, details emerge and dissipate, and everything seems to be hanging in space with the range of movement of a mobile. Read more

Tags: , , ,

James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 4 Comments

British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Liisa Hirsch – Lävi (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

Being the first day of the season of Lent, today marks the start of the 5:4 Lent Series. This year, i’m going to be exploring works written for full orchestra, beginning with a piece by Estonian Liisa Hirsch. Hirsch is an intriguing composer; i’m still at a relatively early stage of getting to know her work well, but what i’ve encountered thus far suggests that, among other things, texture – or, more specifically, the way a texture changes over time – seems to be significant in her work.

That’s certainly the case in Lävi [‘threshold’] which i was fortunate to hear a couple of years ago during the Estonian Music Days. There’s a lot going on in the piece, but it makes most sense to speak of it in quite general terms. The title is all-important. ‘Threshold’ is an interesting word to use in a musical context as it indicates both stasis, referencing a fixed point, and movement, implying progression through or past that point with the concomitant suggestion of an ensuing effect or change in state. In the specific context of Hirsch’s music, it seems to me that the emphasis is put not simply on the duality but the liminality of this idea, focusing on the identity of material, the nature of change between identities and what constitutes the tipping point from one to the other. Read more

Tags: , , ,