World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released.

The only entirely electronic concert took place on Sunday afternoon, given by the not-entirely-snappily-named Estonian Electronic Music Society’s Ensemble. Vahid Jahandari‘s fixed media The Vulture was arguably the most impressive work on the programme. Inspired by photojournalist Kevin Carter’s famous troubling image of a vulture lurking near a starving girl, Jahandari’s soundscape transformed sounds from a double bass into an immersive, deeply threatening soundscape. There was something distinctly plaintive lurking within, though, heard in higher register material and fragments of melody, ghostly remnants and traces that seemed doomed in such a glowering environment, and which ultimately disappeared into their own reverb. Though the rest of the concert was somewhat more rudimentary, it had a couple of striking moments. In REMOTE ME, Serbian composer Jasna Veličković utilised two remote controls in close proximity to three electromagnetic pick-up coils to create a really fun, beat-oriented miniature study. Fellow Serb Andreja Andric‘s Pocket Electronic Symphony #1 was similarly engaging, the performer wielding a smartphone to generate what sounded like a datastream being shaped into abstract forms, textures and patterns. It was ‘symphonic’ inasmuch as its elements were often, literally, sounding together, and i honestly couldn’t help thinking of Mahler when an extended loud sequence erupted as if from nowhere. It’s worth saying that while the two performances by the entire six-member ensemble – an improvisation and a new work called Flux by ensemble member Ekke Västrik – sounded rather tentative and uncertain (from both a compositional and performative perspective), i couldn’t help admiring the simplicity of their approach, and their focus on elementary signals as the basis for music. It initially seemed dated, but was it really? Getting away from the usual experience of sound sources that have been subjected to massive amounts of treatment and processing was a tremendous relief.

i was glad to have a second opportunity to hear music by Icelandic composer Ríkharður H. Friðriksson. Though i’d been underwhelmed by his performance at the Dark Music Days in January, his fixed media piece … e mezzo, heard in the reverberant Niguliste Church on Friday evening, was excellent, flooding the space and enveloping us in rapid-fire, anonymous stuff, streams of vocalise and pitchless scrunch and noise. It was by far one of the most abstract things i heard all week, but also one of the most immediate and exhilarating. Elizabeth Anderson‘s 8-channel Solar Winds was by contrast a complete let-down – all the more so due to its inordinate quantity of accompanying tl;dr explanatory notes that turned out to mean essentially nothing in light of its vague, undifferentiated, safe and shrug-worthy material. Sweden’s Thommy Wahlström bravely sought to incorporate the church’s primary instrument in his 2017 invention for organ and EA No. 18. The organ part (performed by Ulla Krigul) was strongly redolent of Messiaen’s 1969 Méditations (both the material and the choice of registrations), though articulated such that it sounded private, as if we were being made privy to a kind of ‘inner’ music, even an ‘inadvertent’ music, made all the more vivid through Wahlström’s use of the sound of the organ compressor. As such, the acoustic and field recording elements blended entirely to form a fascinatingly liminal experience.

Among the other electroacoustic highlights was the world première of Schattenseele [The Soul of Shadow] for violin and electronics by Age Veeroos, performed by Swedish duo There Are No More Four Seasons. As with last year’s orchestral work Skein of Thought, Veeroos managed to create something provocatively intriguing from the most wispy and elusive of ideas. Considering the work’s inspiration, it was impossible not to hear its intangible substance as a manifestation of some kind of ‘soul material’, though seemingly not so much made from shadow but light. In Orison for three music box players and electronics, Canada’s Kotoka Suzuki created an interesting disjunct between the physicality of the music-making process – music boxes, strips of papers being fed into them, all closely-coordinated – and the dream-like bliss of the music. To be honest, ‘bliss’ obviously isn’t quite the right word considering Suzuki’s concern was “the voices of children during wartime”, yet while the electronics introduced more negative connotations, the ultimate emphasis of the work seemed to be more on simplicity than pain or damage. Either way, performed by Finnish group Defunenesmble, it was highly effective. At the same concert, inside Tallinn’s amazing former industrial factory now creative hub the Kultuurikatel, Welsh composer Andrew Lewis improbably found inspiration from the squeals of an escalator, which in Straatmuziek [Street Music] were translated into material for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano and electronics. Initially imitative, thereafter the music became romanticised and elaborated. It was really very lovely in an obliquely lyrical way, a line running through its centre but subject to deviations and splinterings off. The involvement of the electronics, introducing the sound of the actual escalator, was beautifully seamless, providing deep rumbles and enhancing the noise and friction in the ensemble. Brilliant.

Several of the electroacoustic works also incorporated video elements. At one end of the spectrum were Alexander Schubert‘s Star Me Kitten and Stefan PrinsGeneration Kill – offspring 1, two of the most stunningly self-indulgent, masturbatory, pretentious and stupefyingly stupid things i have ever been subjected to in a concert hall. It would be easy to point the finger at the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn’s artistic director Arash Yazdani who, based on the combination of last year’s concert of his music, plus an additional bit of doggerel heard this year, and this entire concert, seems concerned solely with the most dismally superficial and reheated forms of shock, provocation and titillation, but the buck stops with Schubert and Prins. Discreet conversations with many, many people throughout the rest of the festival testified that my response to these pieces was very far from being unique (the exact opposite, in fact), so the buck – and Yazdani for that matter – should most definitely stop.

At the other end of the spectrum, back at the Kultuurikatel, in All Play Norwegian composer Jan Martin Smørdal erased the sound of a typically outlandish performance by guitarist Daniel Meyer Grønvold (shown on a screen above the stage) and replaced it with material inspired by, and perhaps to an extent imitative of, the original. The members of Defunensemble increasingly felt fundamentally connected to Grønvold, seemingly becoming the external mouthpiece – or a kind of multi-faceted loudspeaker – for his gestures and contortions. It was entirely convincing, the ensemble seeming to tease out the inner details and filigree contained within Grønvold’s waves, sheets and slabs of noise. Later that evening, Kristine Tjøgersen‘s Mistérios do Corpo [Mysteries of the Body] for string quartet and video did to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal’s body what Andrew Lewis had done to the escalator. Based on a work by Pascoal (of the same name) performed by and on his own supine body, Tjøgersen extends his percussive and vocal sounds to the string quartet. Though perhaps a touch overlong (presumably the same could be said for Pascoal’s piece too), synchronised with the muted video the performance, given by members of the Yxus Ensemble, was compelling throughout, by turns mesmeric and downright hilarious.

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 2)

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The one opportunity to hear music for full orchestra at this year’s World Music Days took place on Friday evening at the Estonia Concert Hall, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts. The Estonian Music Days’ tradition of recent years has been to begin the Friday orchestral concert with the presentation of the Au-tasu award, given to the work by an Estonian composer premièred during the previous year deemed by a jury to be the best. In its 2016 inaugural year, one of the younger generation, Liisa Hirsch, took the prize, but since then the award seems to have become simply a celebration of Estonia’s most well-established senior composers: Toivo Tulev in 2017, Erkki-Sven Tüür in 2018, with this year’s winner being Helena Tulve. i’m not at all suggesting the compositions that won were not the best in that particular year, but it nonetheless seems a little troubling to see the award so quickly gravitate to the upper echelons of Estonian contemporary music. Arvo Pärt in 2020? That being said, though it didn’t win, special mention was given to a work that, to my mind, wasn’t only one of the best of last year but one of the best i’ve heard in the four years i’ve been attending the festival: Conatus by Liina Sumera. It’s a work i raved about it at its première last year, and while i haven’t yet heard all of the works shortlisted for this year’s award, it would have been entirely fitting if Sumera’s dazzling electronic work had taken the prize. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 1)

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At the northernmost edge of Tallinn, looking out over the Baltic Sea towards Finland, is a huge concrete edifice called the Linnahall. Built during the Soviet occupation, it was constructed as part of the USSR’s hosting of the 1980 Olympic Games, as a coastal hub for the boating events. It’s a place i’ve gone to visit each time i’ve been in Tallinn during the last four years, to savour, and marvel at, its complete incongruity. Of course, Tallinn has the usual complement of modern office blocks, skyscrapers and the like, the scale and sharp edges of which are themselves at some remove from the more modest sizes and gentler inclines of the Old Town and the remains of its surrounding wall. But the Linnahall is different: it’s the personality, if you will, of the architecture that feels so completely alien: massive, brutalist, sprawling and immovable, a testament to human engineering, designed to make an enormous impact. It is, in every sense of the word, imposing. And everything about that, it seems to me, is at odds with the temperament of so much Estonian contemporary music, where the tone is more nuanced and focused, emphasising such things as contemplation and perhaps smallness, informed by the natural world, organicity and intuitive creativity, open to more than just what we immediately see and sense, less about making a big impact or impression than just unassumingly being one. The Linnahall is Tallinn’s ‘other’: as congruous to the city as an astronaut’s footprint on the surface of the moon.

This year, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the country’s annual Estonian Music Days, the festival hosted the ISCM World Music Days, and even before setting off for Estonia i wondered if the bringing together of these two very different festivals would result in a similar kind of incongruity. Would it be EMD slash WMD, adjacent to each other; EMD and WMD, happening together but separate entities; EMD within WMD, one embedded in the other; or even EMD versus WMD? In previous years as i’ve tentatively begun to know better the thought and practice underpinning Estonian contemporary music, i’ve been (and continue to be) fascinated at its relationship with the rest of the musical world. Such as it is: i think it’s fair to say, putting it mildly, that the relationship is a complex one; i’ve detected varying quantities of disinterest and/or bemusement, and occasionally even hostility, toward what goes on beyond the country’s borders. So the effect of the collision of these two particular festivals was always going to be extremely interesting. Read more

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Veronique Vaka – Lendh (World Première)

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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

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Judit Varga – …alles Fleisch… (UK Première)

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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

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Arne Gieshoff – Burr (World Première)

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“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

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Harrison Birtwistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII (World Première)

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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.

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