Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways & for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences & memories from the past. The most frustrating & patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland & Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint & simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focussed lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin & cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work & second première: Gavin Higgins‘ The Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after & inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical & nostalgic weight. Read more
One of the most beguiling & enigmatic premières i’ve encountered in recent times took place at Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival in March, heard for the first time outside the USA no fewer than 54 years after its composition. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this considerable feat of procrastination; Morton Feldman‘s The Swallows of Salangan lasts a mere nine minutes, & even though the instrumentation is unusual—a chorus, plus 5 flutes (4 regular, 1 alto), 5 trumpets, 2 tubas, 2 pianos, 2 vibraphones & 7 cellos—it’s not something that would tax any established ensemble or orchestra. There must be another reason for such lackadaisicality, & one can’t help wondering whether it has more than a little to do with the nature of the music itself; i described it ‘beguiling & enigmatic’, but there’s equally a kind of aloof impenetrability that one can imagine many listeners might find not merely unappealing but downright off-putting. Yet if knees can be convinced to bend rather than jerk, there are—as always with Feldman—strange & unfamiliar rewards aplenty to be found. Read more
In the last few years i’ve written about a number of pieces that languished ignored & unplayed for decades, & earlier this year another such work received its first UK performance, which was also—as far as anyone can tell—only the second time it had been heard. That fact is somewhat surprising considering that the work in question was Mégalithes, by the renowned French composer Gérard Grisey, whose work has long enjoyed an enthusiastic following throughout Europe, in part due to his innovative approach to sound, which became known as spectral music. Mégalithes predates those developments, however, composed in 1969 when Grisey was just 23 years old. The combination of that striking title & its scoring for 15 brass instruments (4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 6 horns & tuba, distributed around the performance space) suggests not so much a composition as a granite-hewn edifice. Yet Grisey’s motivation was neither hard nor impersonal; described as an “oeuvre composée à la mémoire des victimes du Biafra”, Mégalithes commemorates the million-plus innocent victims massacred in the Nigerian Civil War, which took place through the last three years of the 1960s.
There’s an interesting small addendum to be made to my article a couple of days ago, reviewing recent CDs. i commented that LSO Live has released the world première performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s large-scale orchestral work Speranza, but what the disc doesn’t contain is the entirety of the piece as heard on that first occasion. Anyone in the concert hall or who (like me) heard the live broadcast may be forgiven for feeling some dismay at discovering one of the most curious but lovely parts of the piece to be entirely absent from the CD release. Turnage initially conceived Speranza in five movements, each titled with the word ‘hope’ in different languages, & it’s the original fourth movement, L’espoir, which he appears to have decided to excise from the work. Considering the pair of interviews i’ve heard where Turnage discusses Speranza, one could perhaps have seen this coming; on both occasions (once prior to the performance, the other on the BBC’s The Strand Archive), Turnage’s description of the five movements rather skirts over the fourth, almost apologising for it, both in terms of compositional individuality—with reference to the use of borrowed melodies, which Turnage states “I did nothing to actually”—& also aesthetic, essentially dismissing it as “a real moody piece … more of a textural piece, which is unusual for me, just chords & rather desolate tunes”. Read more
If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title & the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title & content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation & spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year & a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications. Read more
One of the most memorable performances at HCMF 2013 arose out of what appeared beforehand to be pretty restricted forces: bass flute, violin, cello & prepared piano, members of the French Ensemble Linea. Yet in Rokh I, the first of a three-part, 30-minute cycle, Raphaël Cendo enables this quartet to become one of the most startlingly elemental pieces of chamber music i’ve ever witnessed.
In Huddersfield, of all places, one hardly expects instruments to be played only in a traditional fashion. But Rokh I goes further; by avoiding almost anything resembling convention, Cendo practically redefines what music is, turning it on its head in fact. Cendo’s extended techniques seem like nothing of the kind, but merely the most basic & fundamental—even obvious—ingredients for the intensely focussed, self-referential entity that is Rokh I. The work’s point of inspirational origin is the terrifying mythological bird of prey found in Indian, Persian & Asian literature (perhaps most memorably in the One Thousand and One Nights). Cendo establishes the sonic credentials of the creature in the most dazzlingly vivid way, a counterpoint of violence formed from a myriad gestures, slides, twangs, thwacks, ruffles, slaps, heavily compressed pitches, grindings, pops, clusters & whooshes. It’s as though we’ve become the miniaturised inhabitant of the great creature’s nest, confronted by activity on a massive & potentially very destructive scale. Read more
Memories & afterthoughts of the exhilarating &, at times, revelatory experiences from HCMF 2013 haven’t really stopped swirling around my mind, so i’m going to begin 2014 by revisiting some of the most interesting highlights, starting with a world première given by the BBC Singers, directed by Nicolas Kok.
Even though it’s only two months since Cecilie Ore‘s Come to the Edge! was premièred, a great deal has changed. Chiefly, the focus of the work’s subject matter—the ludicrous imprisonment of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot—has become a historical event, as the pair of group members who remained incarcerated were released shortly before Christmas. However, the main thrust of Cecilie Ore’s abiding question—”how civilised are we?”—persists with, if anything, greater intensity. Few would attribute the band members’ release to an honest change of heart from a benevolent ruler; on the contrary, Vladimir Putin’s vain attempt to smooth over the world’s dismay at his increasingly dictatorial attitudes only illustrates the difference between being civilised & merely appearing to be civilised. Read more