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, focussing 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
Today is the final day of Lent, so it’s time to draw my series focussing 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
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
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
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
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
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