Lent Series

Davíð Brynjar Franzson – on Matter and Materiality (World Première)

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Without wishing to appear too biased towards the cello, the next concerto in my Lent series is another work that features that instrument at its epicentre. A few months back, i was enthusing about Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s radical treatment of the piano; in his new work on Matter and Materiality, he puts the cello into an equally radical but altogether more gruelling context.

If the soloist can be described as not doing much, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It sounds as though Franzson has detuned the C-string down to a bottom D (a similar effect to that in Rebecca Saunders’ Solitude), and this note becomes the unwitting nadir of the cello’s repeated failed attempts to haul itself up or out or along. These attempts are expressed in a dogged series of grinding swells (orchestral colours can be barely glimpsed within them); ostensibly tinged with aggression, the instability of the cello’s timbre coats its pitch with spasmodic harmonics and overtones, exposing it as utmost fragile, all throbs and palpitations, music in dire need of defibrillation. Heavy bow pressure, far from obtaining some kind of solidity (or, considering the title, ‘materiality’), only undermines this fundamental further, causing it to waver and distort. Read more

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Patrick Nunn – Fata Morgana

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The next concerto in my Lent series is another involving solo cello, Fata Morgana by British composer Patrick Nunn. Composed in 2007, this short work—for cello, chamber ensemble and live electronics—takes its title primarily from the character of Morgan le Fay (known among many other names as Fata Morgana), who in Arthurian legend was a shape-shifting enchantress. The term is also used for a particular type of mirage effect, where objects at sea, visible just above the horizon, become significantly transformed due to the effects of light bending through thermal layers of air. The cello’s character throughout is or aspires to be melodic, and its role is emphatically in the foreground as an instigator of ideas. It emerges, at altitude, out of a strange and complex opening chord, whereupon its material is immediately resonated and expanded by the electronics. Despite calling it an instigator, there’s a somewhat pensive quality to the cello’s behaviour, placing notes and melodic gestures cautiously; this contrasts with the tendency of both the ensemble and the electronics, which feel highly sensitive to the cello’s slightest sounds, extending them while growing in intensity and pace all the time. Read more

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Alvin Lucier – Slices

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It’s Ash Wednesday, and therefore the start of my annual Lent Series, which this year i’m devoting to contemporary concertos. i’m going to treat the term ‘concerto’ with a certain amount of latitude, focusing primarily on works where one or more soloists act in relation to a larger body of players.

To begin, a relatively simple but beguiling work for cello and orchestra by Alvin Lucier, composed in 2007. The title, Slices, is indicative of the relationship that the soloist has with the orchestra, which is presented here in oscillating modes of action. Initially, the orchestra forms a tight 53-note chromatic cluster (one pitch per instrument; the orchestra comprises 53 players); over this—barely audible at first—the cello picks out isolated pitches, moving in an expanding wedge formation. Gradually it becomes clear that the pitches played by the cello are being removed from the orchestral cluster, leaving erased pitch slices that over time become increasingly wide, until eventually nothing is left. Then the whole process is put into reverse, the cello again placing disjunct pitches that now magically hang in the air as members of the orchestra sustain them, slowly accumulating into another dense cluster; at its zenith, the process reverses once more, and the cello picks apart the cluster, reducing it to nothing. Read more

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Maja S K Ratkje – Crepuscular Hour (UK Première)

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Today is the final day of Lent, so it’s time to draw my series focusing on music by women composers to a close. As it’s Easter Eve, the time associated with the great late-night vigil, i can’t think of a more appropriate piece with which to end the Lent Series than Crepuscular Hour by the Norwegian composer Maja S K Ratkje. Originally completed in 2010, the work—which, as the name suggests, lasts a full hour—is intended to be performed in a large, resonant space, such as a cathedral, with the musicians surrounding the audience. These musicians, comprising three choirs, three pairs of noise musicians and a church organ, fill the environment with sound that works both to evoke the effect of crepuscular rays (strong shafts of sunlight emerging from cloud, typically seen at dawn and dusk) and also to transport the audience on a form of meditative journey. The structure of a composition, after all, is not that dissimilar from that of a liturgy, and Crepuscular Hour is in essence an abstract liturgical act, one that doesn’t so much impel meaning on the faithful as provide stimuli and a framework for our own individualised meditations. Read more

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Liza Lim – Invisibility

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i was surprised to realise recently that, apart from a CD review last year, the penultimate composer in my Lent Series, Liza Lim, has not yet been featured on 5:4. That’s a pretty serious omission, one that i hope will be mitigated by celebrating her 2009 work for solo cello, Invisibility. Too many discussions about new music get distracted by the shedloads of technical tomfoolery encasing the music (frequently as a substitute for content, activity masquerading as achievement). In the case of Invisibility, however, one can only begin by examining a technical aspect of the work—but an aspect that informs the work at every level, from the exotic surface right down to its firmament. Read more

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Misato Mochizuki – Musubi (UK Première)

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Back to the Lent Series, and a work by the Japanese composer Misato Mochizuki. Mochizuki’s compositional outlook encompasses both east and west, perhaps a by-product of periods of study in Tokyo and Paris (at IRCAM, where she studied with Tristan Murail). For the last five years, Mochizuki has taught at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, but her work continues to be performed regularly in France. She’s a bit of an unknown quantity in the UK, but that situation may improve with the release a few days ago of a new CD of her music on the NEOS label. Meanwhile, here’s a highly effective, slow-burning orchestral work of Mochizuki’s, performed at last year’s Total Immersion day celebrating contemporary Japanese music. Read more

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Brigitta Muntendorf – Sweetheart, Goodbye!

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The next piece in my Lent Series is by German composer Brigitta Muntendorf, based in Cologne. Muntendorf’s work is heavily characterised by overt theatricality; three years ago, in Salzburg, Muntendorf premièred her first music theatre work Wer zum Teufel ist Gerty (YouTube), followed last year by Endlich Opfer, more substantial but nonetheless described by the composer as a “pocket opera”. In between the two, Muntendorf composed a remarkable electroacoustic piece for voice, mono loudspeaker and ensemble of eight players titled Sweetheart, Goodbye!. Her starting point was a chapter from James Joyce’s Ulysses, not so much ‘set’ as dramatised—the score specifies that the ideal vocalist would be “an actress with vocal training” rather than a singer—a process Muntendorf likens to “playing with emotions as material”. Read more

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Linda Buckley – chiyo (UK Première)

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We’re back in Ireland for the next in my Lent Series devoted to music by women composers. Linda Buckley comes from the wonderfully-named Old Head of Kinsale, in County Cork. Her studies have centred around Trinity College Dublin, where she completed her Ph.D. and now lectures. Buckley composes intrumental and electronic music, which appear to be characterised by what i can only describe as a kind of intense radiance, incorporating an overt triadic impulse and also strong tendencies toward the microtonal. Put simply, she makes the pitch domain shine in a way that both comforts and blanches, a quality that permeates her sumptuous 2011 orchestral work chiyo. Read more

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Ana-Maria Avram – Nouvel Archae

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Back to my Lent Series, and a rather beautiful work for voice and electronics by the Romanian composer Ana-Maria Avram. Also a pianist and conductor, Avram was born and studied in Bucharest, before moving to the Sorbonne in Paris to pursue a PhD in Musical Aesthetics. Avram directs the Hyperion Ensemble with her husband Iancu Dumitrescu, and together they promote themselves as composers of ‘hyper-spectral’ music, an extension of spectralism encompassing aspects other than just the harmonic, such as timbre and dynamics, and which is particularly interested in how sound operates within the live performance environment. She works extensively with electronics, and her compositional interests can be heard to good effect in her 1998 work Nouvel Archae for “computer-assisted” voice. Read more

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Jennifer Walshe: Detleva Verens – Scintillia

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As it’s St Patrick’s Day, who better to feature next in my Lent Series than one of the most brilliant voices in Irish contemporary music, Jennifer Walshe. In appraising Walshe’s work, it’s impressive enough to consider just the seemingly boundless intricacies of her imagination. Famously, Walshe has fabricated the existence of a group of composers under the umbrella collective Grúpat, each with their own very extensive back-stories and discrete artistic personalities. Many of Walshe’s compositions are attributed to these Grúpat figures, pseudepigrapha that demonstrate her remarkable breadth of compositional interest. But equal to this imaginative power is Walshe’s virtuosity as a vocal performer; it’s not always clear what on earth is coming out of her mouth (or indeed why), but such questions are hard to formulate when one’s grappling with her incredible dexterity and stamina, both of which have practically become the stuff of legend. Read more

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Alison Kay – Flux (World Première)

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Next in my Lent Series is a piece by a composer whose work i’ve encountered precisely once. Born in 1970, Alison Kay‘s studies took her from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to the Royal College of Music to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and finally to Sussex University; since 2004 she’s been back at the RCM in a teaching capacity. Beyond this, neither i nor, it seems, the internet, knows much about Kay or her music, save for a short piece included on a 2001 NMC release, and this instructive quotational nugget:

I enjoy the physicality of music. In composition, the potential to craft and shape structures from the most intimate timbral nuance to the most intense, dramatic structural gesture opens endless possibilities. I try to create visceral, three-dimensional music that has the potential to encompass exciting rhythmical impetus, rich timbral and harmonic language, textural shapes and surfaces, and a sense of varying movement and weight through time. I always start from the perspective of the physical properties of instruments and performance spaces. I see the interpretation of my music by performers and listeners as an integral part of the compositional process.

Read more

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Chaya Czernowin – Afatsim

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The next piece in my Lent Series celebrating women composers is by the Israeli Chaya Czernowin. Czernowin left Israel in her 20s, studying first in Germany and then the United States (her teachers included Brian Ferneyhough and Roger Reynolds), where she remains today, in Boston. One of the features of her work that i find most engaging is the way it absolutely demands repeated listenings. That’s not to suggest one can’t take away anything of value in a single hearing, only that one’s always aware there is very much more to be grasped, and Czernowin’s work is sufficiently interesting that there’s plenty of motivation to return to it on later occasions. Her 1996 work Afatsim is just such a piece.

Composed for an ensemble of nine players, spaced apart as much as possible, Czernowin subdivides the players into four groups, or to use her term, “composite instruments” (see programme note, below). However, due both to the way these ‘instruments’ are presented and also the way their materials are intermingled, shared, focused upon and so on, means that it is hard, sometimes impossible to perceive the groupings in an obvious way. This obfuscation seems to help rather than hinder the piece, however, the textures of which are often difficult to get hold of, particularly at the beginning. The soundworld of Afatsim is one where instruments are not, for the most part, played according to convention, establishing a kind of aural ‘no man’s land’ where sources feel unknowable, save for the persistent early squeal of a recognisable bass clarinet. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)

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Today marks the first day of Lent, and as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion and standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom and harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:

why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Tree of Strings (UK Première)

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A couple of summers ago, the Beloved and i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves and sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye and the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), and the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories and objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy. Read more

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James Dillon – String Quartets No. 5 (World Première) and No. 6 (UK Première)

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Despite their official numbering, the last two string quartets written by Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive composer, James Dillon, were actually composed the opposite way round to how they appear. His String Quartet No. 5 was originally begun as a gift for the Arditti Quartet, to celebrate their 30th anniversary. However, Dillon ultimately put the work aside unfinished, before returning to complete it a few years later, sending it to Irvine Arditti unannounced, now as a gift for their 35th anniversary. In the intervening period, Dillon had already completed what would subsequently be called his String Quartet No. 6. Regardless of the numbers, though, the two works have much in common, in terms of duration (each lasting around 15 minutes) as well as the type and treatment of their material. Read more

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John Cage – String Quartet in Four Parts

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In addition to intimacy, the string quartet is a medium capable of remarkable levels of austerity. It’s no surprise, then, that John Cage turned to the quartet as the vehicle for a work in which, “without actually using silence, I should like to praise it” (as Cage wrote to his parents, prior to starting the piece). A few years earlier, in 1947, Cage had composed his first orchestral work, The Seasons, using a technique that he described as a ‘gamut’. This involved the pre-composition of a collection of materials—chords, gestures, solitary sonic moments—that had no relation to each other. These would then become the entire repertoire for the compositional act, Cage choosing from this collection of materials as the mood took him. The gamut technique was an important step towards the aleatoric methods Cage would explore in the next stage of his output, and it’s heard with perhaps the greatest clarity in the work he wrote next, the String Quartet in Four Parts, composed in 1950. Here, Cage created a library of chords, and then a melodic line; to harmonise this melody, Cage called upon whichever chords supported the melody’s current pitch (the same chords always fixed to the same pitches). In addition to use of the gamut, the work also draws on the seasons for inspiration, being in four movements each of which is dedicated to one season. The reference to silence in the above quotation is arguably as much about motion as the actual presence or otherwise of sound itself. Indeed, the titles of the first three movements indicate a gradual tendency towards motionlessness: ‘Quietly Flowing Along’ (summer), ‘Slowly Rocking’ (autumn), ‘Nearly Stationary’ (winter). But another kind of silence evoked in the work is that of self-expression. By drastically restricting the composer’s palette to a small pool of disjunct fragments, the gamut technique to no little extent confounds most conventions of what might otherwise pass for “expression”. This is mirrored in an instruction to the players that they not only avoid vibrato but use minimal weight on the bow, resulting in a cool, detached, rather other-worldly sound, often sounding poised to evaporate. Read more

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Christopher Fox – Chambre privée (World Première)

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Imagine a culture in which the string quartet has no history. No Haydn, no late-Beethoven, no Bartok, no Eleanor Rigby. How would a group of four string players – why four? why not? why two violins? maybe the bass player couldn’t get up the stairs… How would a group of four string players know what to play, how to play together?

The next work featured in my Lent series is Chambre privée, a new quartet from Christopher Fox which was premièred at Huddersfield last November. It’s a piece i find interesting, but not really at all for the reasons the composer is intending. The trouble is that potentially fascinating conceit described in the programme note—or, rather, the sounds his quartet makes with regard to that conceit. Their behaviour for much of the piece is, as Fox states, “tentative”, guarded even. But not, as one might imagine, toward one another; on the contrary, the quartet immediately coalesces into a homogeneous unit articulating an extended series of soft, meticulously placed chords. Why do they act together? why are they so cautious? so restrained? so careful? The chords themselves aren’t particularly suggestive of anything, per se (although the ear makes a progression of sorts from them), yet they overwhelmingly sound sculpted, considered, not at all the product of spontaneity arising from the blank pages of non-history. Being spontaneous doesn’t necessarily connote chaos, of course, but—considering these players have supposedly nothing upon which to predicate their actions—is it really commensurate with instantaneous, long-term order? Read more

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Jörg Widmann – String Quartet No. 2 (Chorale Quartet)

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One of the greatest gifts of the string quartet is its ability to explore the most intimate of soundworlds. The second of Jörg Widmann‘s string quartets (he’s composed a series of five), subtitled the ‘Chorale Quartet’, is a striking example of this, spending much of its time at the threshold of utterance.

Widmann makes it clear in the opening moments of the piece that there is something familiar, traditional and perhaps fundamental, lurking not far beneath the surface of the music. It emerges from the halting, sporadic notes that begin the work, broken and tainted by the quartet’s hesitance and microtonal inflections. This is almost as clear as it is able to become; much of the time it can barely be perceived beneath the network of near-silent gestures from which most of the work’s fabric is made. It’s a judgement call as to whether the players are working to defeat this latent material or whether it’s defeating them, but either way, the quartet’s demeanour is an uncomfortable one. Their hesitant notes occasionally get drawn-out into long, spindly threads, coated in barely audible shivers; but when they seek to be more assertive, the result is rude blurts, needle-sharp pizzicatos, grinding accents and dull surges. About a third of the way through, the quartet appears to grow, both in terms of substance and confidence, but a potentially strong cadential moment gets caught once again, quickly reduced to fragility. Read more

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Simon Holt – Two movements for string quartet

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My Lent string quartet series continues with a most unusual work from Simon Holt. Its title, Two movements for string quartet, seems uncharacteristically abstract for Holt, but its content is rooted in the evocative imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (the piece is, in fact, the second in Holt’s five-part ‘a ribbon of time’ cycle inspired by Dickinson’s work). The poem in question is ‘Dying’, composed in 1863, a sombre text made all the more troubling by Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes, turning the text into a fraught sequence of breathless utterances.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

This breathless quality is brought to bear on Holt’s first movement, titled ‘Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz’. The music is drawn from an opening solo on the viola that begins rapidly but loses momentum quickly, eventually stopping. It then relaunches with the rest of the quartet, and it’s this pattern of behaviour—quick commencements that founder; intense, rapid material becoming light and sporadic—that pervades the entire movement. At times there’s an onomatopoeic quality, the instruments overlapping and nuzzling each other, creating buzz-like clashes. As it progresses, the material feels more deliberate, jutting, pointed, as though rudely carved in the air. Lumbering tuttis eventually come to dominate, but the quieter passages are more striking, particularly a curious episode halfway through, when the music falls into a slow, gentle rocking (to be echoed later). This, together with the heavy conclusion, the quartet petering out and sagging, shivering, onto their final chords, go a long way to capturing the unsettling atmosphere of Dickinson’s text. Read more

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Simon Steen-Andersen – String Quartet No. 2 (UK Première)

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If there’s one thing practically guaranteed every year at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, it’s the presence of a string quartet that approaches the medium from a radical perspective, one that does away, almost entirely, with its traditions and connotations. The next work in my Lent series focusing on new quartets is just such a piece: Simon Steen-Andersen‘s String Quartet No. 2, given its first UK performance at HCMF 2012 by the Bozzini Quartet. It wasn’t so very long ago, writing about another recent quartet, Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 4, that i critiqued quite harshly music that stretched its modest quota of restricted material far, far too thinly, with mind-numbing results. By contrast, Steen-Andersen demonstrates that it’s possible to confine almost every aspect of the work while maintaining high levels of invention and interest. Read more

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