Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
Proms premières come in all shapes and sizes, and last week’s new works from HK Gruber and Hugh Wood were larger and more aspirational specimens. Scale and stature are different things, though, and despite their respective composers’ demonstrative ambition (and experience, composing veterans both), each of these pieces were hobbled by considerations that would have been less problematic in smaller-scale forms. Read more
Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe. Read more
Right, let’s get (belatedly) cracking. For a few years, the annual Proms season began with a première, which was nice but reduced the piece (or, at least, reduced composers’ aspirations) to a mere curtain-raiser. Gary Carpenter‘s Dadaville, which received its first performance in the opening Proms concert last week, did not begin the concert (that task fell to Nielsen), but the piece would in fact have worked wonderfully well as a concert-opening overture, but one with considerable chops and ambition. Read more
Back to Tectonics, and to one of the most beautiful new orchestral scores i’ve encountered in recent times. Christopher Fox‘s Topophony, for orchestra and up to three optional soloists (but not a concerto), operates in such a way that the conductor ensures that every beat is a different length. Beats are not of over-arching sonic importance, though, as the music speaks through slow, meditative swatches of instrumental colour, comprising textures of protracted, shifting pitches with a variety of surface articulations. These are often fascinating, conjuring up motors, the noise of something caught in bicycle spokes, the bell of an alarm clock: unpitched occasional worryings that become a delicate counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra which, apart from some moments when deep throbs threaten to overwhelm, comes across by contrast as rather distant (in both senses of the word). Read more
As far as new music was concerned, last Saturday at the Cheltenham Music Festival was characterised chiefly by exotica and sensuality. To a lesser extent the latter was to be found in the late evening gig at Parabola Arts Centre given by Emulsion Sinfonietta, although only three (out of seven) pieces were prepared to eschew being episodically amorphous and/or locked in primitive, rather hackneyed loop chatter. Emulsion founder Trish Clowes‘ Apple Boy appeared at first to be quite simple, but turned out to be extravagantly rich—opulent even—attaining some very impressive tutti textures that were highly individualistic, only held in check by the music’s underlying harmony. The quality of its lyricism was only exceeded by its ravishing beauty. In a change to the programme, a work by Iain Ballamy (that may have been called Chantreys) tapped into similarly lush harmonies in a piece that unfolded like a slow chorale, stately and sumptuous. But highlight of the evening was Luke Styles‘ highly atmospheric Chasing the Nose, doleful despite a persistent funked-up tribal groove; focussed on a wonderfully lyrical bass clarinet line, it expanded into a feisty duet with saxophone at its conclusion; exhilarating and immersive stuff. Read more
A composer whose work has for many years left me both amused and bemused is Peter Ablinger, whose latest large-scale work QUARTZ was also premièred at last month’s Tectonics festival. The piece is in keeping with Ablinger’s ongoing concern with the way relatively rudimentary—not to say mundane—sounds are perceived when heard in conditions that afford a new kind of scrutiny. Here, the relentless ticking of a small quartz clock becomes the basis for a four-part orchestral study; subtitled “for high orchestra”, this indicates at the outset that almost everything heard is in the uppermost registers of the instruments. Ablinger made a recording of the clock, which was then subjected to a frequency analysis to tease out its pitches; this recording is heard at the close of each movement, acting as something between a cadence and a reference point, returning the piece to a kind of ‘default’ position.
Not surprisingly, the four movements, each located within a narrow band up in the pitch domain’s stratosphere, bear strong resemblances to each other, but the act of listening to such similar materials causes even small differences to feel immense. Read more