Miscellaneous

Ivan Wyschnegradsky – Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony

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If composers have generally lost a lot of the romanticised mystique and puffery that used to surround them (no bad thing), there remains one area where compositional intent is still likely to raise eyebrows and/or hackles, and confine the composer to a box labelled ‘weirdo’: non-standard tunings. Due to the mental and physical reconfigurations it demands, the act of turning away from the haven of semitones and octaves in favour of alternate divisions of pitch still has a tendency to piss off performers and audiences alike, and despite the ripostes that equally-tempered semitones are only one way of subdividing the infinite gradations of the pitch domain, and are in any case largely irrelevant in electronic music, composers who indulge in microtonal machinations within the realm of instrumental music often continue to be emblazoned with a badge of the bizarre. Even such well-known and -regarded figures as Charles Ives and Harry Partch continue to sport this badge (in Partch’s case, being practically defined by it); time, it seems, can only do so much.

All of which makes the publication of Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky‘s Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony a welcome contribution to this area. In the same way as Partch, Wyschnegradsky’s name is synonymous with microtonality, and the few albums of his work that have been released all feature examples of his quartertone piano music. While i’m no Wyschnegradsky expert, this association is perhaps not an unfair one, as it’s abundantly clear from his Manual just how seriously he regarded quartertones and how earnest he was in his efforts to integrate them into conventional (i.e. semitonal) music theory. Simply but elegantly published by Underwolf Editions, this is the first English translation of the book, a painstaking process undertaken by Rosalie and Noah Kaplan (translator and editor respectively), incorporating later edits made by Wyschnegradsky in his own annotated copy of the book, which was originally published in 1932. At just 28 pages its length belies how significant the book is; it deserves to sit alongside any of the great 20th century compositional tracts, manuals and manifestos. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Laurence Crane – Movement for 10 musicians

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One of the awkward aspects of attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival arises from the fact that, when choosing which concerts to attend, there’s an unavoidable fear that one will inevitably miss something fantastically memorable and/or stunningly ground-breaking. The next piece in my HCMF revisitings is a case in point, from a concert i ended up kicking myself for missing in 2013. The work began life in 2002 as Movement for Ensemble, composed for Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs who presented it at that year’s Gaudeamus Music Week. The following year another Dutch group, The Ives Ensemble, commissioned a slimmed-down version of the piece for a series of performances in conjunction with Rotterdam Dance Works, whereupon it became Movement for 10 musicians.

The entire piece is made from just three very basic ideas:

  • three chords, rising up a scale, emphasising the interval of a 6th, over a sustained pitch;
  • two chords, falling a semitone, with shared pivot notes;
  • a two-octave rising diatonic scale, in octaves, over a sustained pitch.

It unfolds like a cross between Ravel’s Bolero and Howard Skempton’s Lento. Crane repeats the first two of these ideas numerous times in groups of 2, 4 and 6, but despite how obvious these repetitions are, and the structural blocks they form, the piece is not first and foremost about this. Harmony is what ultimately demarcates the work’s overall structure, which falls broadly into four sections. Crane positions the music at a cadential liminal point, founded upon a tonality of E – floating between major and minor – with regular suspended fourths and sevenths that push and tilt it towards the key of A. Three of the work’s four sections do actually end with this cadence, though the way the chord of A is rendered – enriched with sevenths and ninths, but lacking a major or minor third – lends it both a harmonic conviction and neutrality that are entirely in keeping with the tonal fluidity that pervades the piece. Read more

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HCMF revisited: James Dillon – Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’

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Scottish composer James Dillon is a regular fixture at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the last few years have included several of his larger-scale works. Of these, the performance of his Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’ at HCMF 2014 was one of the most striking, and has remained vividly in mind partly due to how difficult it seemed to parse, and as a consequence was a tricky piece to write about in my original review. The work isn’t performed often and no recording yet exists, so it’s one of a number of Dillon’s major works that remains in relative obscurity.

That’s unfortunate in any case, but particularly so because of the level of ambition Dillon brought to this piece. His long programme note describes the points of inspiration that led to the work’s subtitle, citing Greco-Roman mythology – Andromeda was the daughter of Celeus and Cassiopeia and personifies the dawn; like Prometheus, she was chained to a rock, eventually rescued by Perseus – and astronomy, referring both to the constellation (which was originally seen to represent Andromeda, and named ‘the chained woman’) as well as the galaxy – the nearest major galaxy to our own – that lies within it. Dillon also talks about the the legacy of the piano concerto idiom, describing the increasing emphasis on soloistic virtuosity that “remains one of its most attractive and repulsive features”, which perhaps explains why the pianist in his piece, save for a short opening cadenza, bears no resemblance to a conventional concerto soloist. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Morton Feldman – Piano Four Hands

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Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Six Piano Études

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It’s been quite a while since my articles on the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin, but here’s an omission from that account, which was only broadcast recently. The day began with a piano recital given by Clare Hammond, featuring Chin’s Six Piano Études. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering Chin studied for several years with György Ligeti, that she should be drawn to the étude form, yet hers are very different both stylistically and collectively from those of her former teacher.

There’s a strong sense of unity running through the six pieces, even of continuity. Chin is drawn to filigree piano writing, which is present right from the start of ‘In C’; the diatonic progressions in the bass guide the étude rather than grounding it, the right hand sounding like streams of water magically cascading upwards. ‘Sequenzen’ begins at the other end of the keyboard, in a lugubrious preamble that swiftly gains momentum, a single pitch lingering within. Hectic passagework breaks out—the upper part filled with embellishment—only hesitating briefly in a moment of repose before launching into a torrential climax. One realises how closely-related these two études seem when the third begins; the tempo of ‘Scherzo ad libitum’ is all over the place, charging off unpredictably only to slow down again immediately afterwards, a juddering sense of motion that brings to mind the inscrutable mannerisms of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. The étude ends in similar fashion, but its centre is a lengthy episode of unstoppable material, like a burning juggernaut, notes flying everywhere like sparks and flares. Read more

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Street Sounds special (BBC 6 Music)

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Last Sunday, the ill-fated BBC 6 Music broadcast a two-hour special focusing on the legendary Street Sounds label. The special is presented by Dave Pearce, in conversation with the persistently energetic Morgan Khan, who founded Street Sounds in the early 1980s, and is responsible for bringing so much early hip-hop, electro, rap and house music to England. Street Sounds’ seminal Electro series of albums featured heavily in my own life from the mid 1980s, and they’re discussed on the show (around 42 minutes in) alongside the plethora of other releases put out by Street Sounds in their relatively short initial existence (a cursory glance on Discogs reveals just how prolific the label was).

Street Sounds has recently been undergoing a renaissance, starting a new series of ‘Nu Electro’ releases (Vol. 3 comes out soon), as well as a new clothing line (i’m proud to say i’m writing this little article wearing the limited edition Electro tshirt). Even more exciting, though, is Khan’s tantilising statement on the show that the original albums will in due course be re-released on CD and digital download, an answer to the persistent prayers we fans have been making for over two decades. For a long time i’ve been wanting to do an in-depth retrospective of the first fifteen Electro albums, so this may well happen in due course.

Meanwhile, here’s the two-hour special; the full playlist is as follows: Read more

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Choral Evensong – Eve of Ascension Day (Lincoln Cathedral): music by Patrick Gowers and Messiaen

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Tonight is the eve of the feast of Ascension Day, so today’s broadcast of Choral Evensong explored this theme, coming from Lincoln Cathedral.

The anthem was Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, and regular readers of this blog will know of my love for this piece, having written about it on a number of occasions. It’s a superlative work, beginning shrouded in mystery and obscurity (and listen out for what sounds like the use of a highly appropriate zimbelstern stop tinkling away above the voices); at the first, rather soft, mention of the word “Alleluia”, the whole tone of the anthem shifts, quickly building up to a coruscating series of loud Alleluias from the whole choir. A toccata paves the way for the work’s climax, a vast but brisk chorale punctuated at each cadence with further Alleluias—it’s difficult to listen without tears forming, joy is etched into every note of this piece. The choir performs this challenging piece superbly, clearly enjoying themselves, as well they should; it’s pleasing to see that Gowers’ anthem has finally supplanted (or, at least, provided an alternative to) Finzi’s over-performed God is gone up. Read more

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