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
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.
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, focussed 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
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
A couple of summers ago, the Beloved & 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 & sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye & the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s & ’80s, & 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), & the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories & 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
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 & treatment of their material. Read more
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, & 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, & 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