Today is Australia Day, so i’m marking the occasion with an orchestral work by one of the country’s most well-known composers, Brett Dean. Fire Music was composed in 2011 as a response to the disastrous ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires that spread across Victoria in February 2009. At least, that was the starting point, involving discussions with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, though the piece swiftly took on its own internal logic and narrative not so much irrespective of but in parallel with its emotive point of inspiration. In this respect, it’s interesting to note that, in addition to being a regular orchestral commission (by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), Fire Music was also commissioned by Australian Ballet for a choreography by Graeme Murphy titled Narrative of Nothing. Nonetheless, Dean has stressed the personal connection to the 2009 tragedy that certain aspects of the work hold for him, stating that some of the work’s material includes “specific musical evocations of the event; for example, the extended electric guitar solo about halfway through the piece evolved as a musical interpretation of the momentous, dizzying heat that greeted Victorians on the morning of February 7th, 2009”. Dean has augmented the orchestra with three satellite groups that surround the audience: two trios (flute, trumpet and percussion) on each side and a string quartet behind.
Another interesting première from 2016, also performed at the Tectonics festival, also for piano and orchestra, also featuring John Tilbury as soloist, is Howard Skempton‘s Piano Concerto. This is a work that i’ve been more than usually interested to hear. In conversations throughout the last couple of years, Howard has talked about this piece with me on numerous occasions, though his marvellously inscrutable way of describing it meant that, beyond knowing there was a Stravinsky connection, and that 12-note ideas were not unimportant, the piece remained pretty much a mystery. In fact, it turns out the link to Stravinsky is a big one, organisationally: Skempton has modelled his concerto on Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, both by structuring the work in five short movements and also by utilising virtually the same instrumentation (substituting a second bassoon for Stravinsky’s clarinet, adding a pair of horns and ditching the harp and celesta). Read more
i’ve been spending time with assorted premières from last year, and among the more striking is the most recent—and, in fact, the final—addition to American composer Michael Pisaro‘s ongoing fields have ears series of works. Pisaro’s notion of the ‘field’ comprises a grid arrangement, the vertical rows corresponding to the players and the horizontal columns to divisions of time. Subtitled ‘constellation, monarch, canyon’, fields have ears (10) is a work for piano and orchestra, and Pisaro treats each of the 63 orchestral players as an independent sound source (forming an instrumental parallel to the field recordings and noise that accompanied the solo piano in the first fields have ears work, dating from 2008), with just a single type of sound at their disposal, not necessarily anything to do with their nominal instrument: flute 1, for example, is instructed “shaking paper lightly” while the bass clarinet has “plastic bag, light movements”, and so on. Each player makes three sounds throughout the work’s duration, only one of which is allowed to develop—the emphasis at the individual level is for the most part simply on the sound itself, which is either switched ‘on’ or ‘off’. Read more
My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focussing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. Read more
Having packed out Phipps Hall at HCMF last year, pianist Richard Uttley‘s Saturday morning recital found him in the considerably more fitting space of St Paul’s Hall. Taking place on a stunningly cold day—local temperatures hovering around -1°C—the audience was healthy in size but not in general well-being, peppering the concert with (in one case, worrying close proximity) blasts of coughage. Quite apart from anything else, Uttley deserves considerable kudos for the way he tenaciously maintained concentration. Similar to Seth Parker Woods’ recital the previous day, Uttley performed four works, two of which involved technology. Read more
Friday at HCMF began with a recital by rising star cellist Seth Parker Woods. I’ve had the opportunity to see Woods play once before (at HCMF 2014) and the experience was a highly impressive one, so I was very much looking forward to seeing him in action again. He did not disappoint, performing four challenging works, two of which involved live electronics. The acoustic pieces occupied soundworlds of an intimate, ephemeral nature. Alvin Singleton‘s Argoru II was sufficiently gestural that it took on a pervasive arbitrariness that frustrated engagement on anything but the most superficial level. Gray Neon Life by Edward Hamel was similar but explored much more interesting alternations between gesture and pitch with occasional fragments of a barely audible spoken text. Nonetheless it, too, conveyed an aloofness that made its transient filigree feel somewhat skin-deep. Despite these compositional concerns, Wood’s performance of both pieces was seriously involving, exploiting the intimacy to give the impression he was playing to every member of the audience personally, and even at times as though he were playing entirely to himself. George Lewis‘ Not Alone utilised electronics to echo, distort, resonate, flitter and skitter around and follow hot on the heels of the cello’s material. Structured as a clear sequence of contrasting episodes, there was a delirious playfulness in Lewis’ conveyor belt of wildly diverse musical offerings. As with all but the very best works in the bloated performer-does-something-and-computer-responds genre, there were times when the hierarchical relationship felt simplistic, obvious and even a trifle tired, but this was a minor shortcoming in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and convincing piece. Read more
Yesterday at HCMF was really only about one event: the concert given by Australia’s ELISION ensemble, who are this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. ELISION’s relationship with the festival is long-established—their first appearance coincided with my own first ever visit to the festival, almost exactly twenty years ago, to hear them give the UK première of Richard Barrett’s negatives—and is usually associated with performances of larger-scale works: on this occasion the first UK performances of Aaron Cassidy‘s the wreck of former boundaries (in its complete ensemble version) and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think. Both of them required a bit of mental adjustment to engage properly with their respective approaches.
In Lim’s case, the adjustment was due to the fact that How Forests Think is in many respects strikingly different from a lot of her previous work. Above all, there’s a pervasive multifaceted looseness—heard in the way musical materials inherently behave, in the interactions between players and in the structure of the work’s four movements—that sets it apart from the intense rigour that has hitherto been a quintessential aspect of Lim’s compositional character, and which came as something of a shock. However, what remains immediately familiar is the work’s instrumental nature; Lim’s music often displays a tendency to opulence and here she uses an ensemble clearly designed to sound lush, including the wonderful Chinese sheng performed by Wu Wei, who has brought the instrument to such prominence in contemporary music in recent years. There was a recurring question concerning to what extent the sheng was able to blend with the rest of the ensemble, but in all important respects it hardly mattered as it lent the piece a certain ‘concerto’ quality at various points, and in any case Lim’s writing for the sheng is the most interesting i’ve yet encountered (she should definitely write a solo work for the instrument). There are loci of continuity to be found through the work’s four movements, particularly in the way that the music’s harmonic palette regularly moves toward greater degrees of consonance (of a somewhat complex colouration), as well as a persistent focus on counterpoint in passages that simultaneously sound like a group action as well as the combined result of a collection of self-contained individuals, a nice aural paradox. Read more