Last night saw the first performance of Unsuk Chin‘s new orchestral piece Mannequin, performed at Sage Gateshead by the National Youth Orchestra—who, these days, can seemingly play anything—conducted by Ilan Volkov. The work’s four movements are subtitled “tableaux vivants”, ‘living pictures’ that are rooted in several episodes from E. T. A. Hoffman’s story The Sandman. i say ‘rooted’, but in fact ‘imbued’ would be a better word; if anything has characterised Chin’s music in the last few years it is an increasing tendency towards gestural material, which is in turn formed into intricate textural fabrics. That abstract shapes and forms such as these operate to enact very concrete moods and ideas—usually, as here, directly invoking literary narratives—makes for an exciting and highly dramatic dichotomy. Chin has likened the work to what she calls an “imaginary choreography”, even going so far as to express the hope that it will be literally choreographed at some point, uniting abstract and concrete ideas of movement in another way.
To conclude my revisiting of HCMF 2014 for the time being, i have to feature something by the festival’s Composer-in-Residence, James Dillon. There’s much to choose from, but the single work that made the strongest impact on me was Physis, receiving its world première. i’ve said a little about the work’s background (dating back over 10 years) as well as the way Dillon culled one part of the piece in my original review, but here’s Dillon’s statement in full:
In the process of preparing Physis I & II with the orchestra I took the radical decision to cut ‘Part I’ from the score, this was done for purely musical reasons. The two parts of Physis were always intended to work as independent scores anyway, nevertheless taking the decision to cut the work was not taken lightly. The history of Physis is an unusual one, written as it was nine years ago and never performed at the time it seems destined to maintain a strange position in my work. In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.
In a subsequent interview, though, Dillon cited insufficient rehearsal time as a factor for cutting Physis I (not exactly a “purely musical reason”), and also clarified that the piece was not so much “never performed” as not actually completed on time. The complete truth is no doubt to be found in and among these various ‘facts’. Read more
Staying with Trio Accanto’s superb recital at HCMF last November, Lied by German-born, Chicago-based composer Hans Thomalla makes for an interesting contrast with the piece by Brice Pauset. Thomalla treats the trio like aspects of a single entity (a ‘trinity’ if you like), the three players exploring ideas with one mind. There’s little sense of perspective; each of the performers occupies the foreground, and while it’s tempting to describe one part as having a melodic line while another embellishes it, one can just as cogently argue it the other way around, the former having a simplified version of the latter. Either way, it’s clear throughout that the material is intimately interconnected, to the point that a potent sense of klangfarbenmelodie is projected.
In essence, then, the drama encapsulated in Thomalla’s music—expressed most through implication and delicate dynamic contours—emerges out of what is effectively a single, composite thread of ideas; as time goes on the music feels increasingly repressed—sporadic accents amidst such tentativity lending an air of dazed hysteria—yet it leads to the work’s most beautiful music of all, ending in several wonderful minutes softly transfixed in shadow. Read more
One of my personal highlights of HCMF 2014 was the evening concert given by Trio Accanto, comprising saxophonist Marcus Weiss, pianist Nicolas Hodges (a relative newcomer to the group in 2013) and percussionist Christian Dierstein. Although lasting only a quarter of an hour, Brice Pauset‘s Adagio Dialettico, composed 15 years ago, seems to last considerably longer than that, due to the scope of both the material and the interplay between the players. And, to an extent, due to the tempo, its very slow pace affording Pauset considerable time for the presentation and reflection upon his ideas. This is obvious within the opening couple of minutes, an extended piano solo that’s thoughtful and spacious, patient and pensive. When the saxophone joins in, it’s in a similar vein, occupying itself with quiet trills to such an extent that it sounds downright reticent beside the piano, following its motion with the greatest of caution, perhaps even reverence. This relationship persists as the percussion, initially offering dry reinforcement, moves into the foreground on the vibraphone, and only very gradually do all three parts together become more busily integrated. This leads to highly complex, microtonally-inflected counterpoint—almost three entirely independent lines—yet the trio coalesces at high points and ultimately coincides on a unison a little over halfway through. Read more
One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin. Read more
i went to Huddersfield last November not knowing anything about Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s music; two months on, following an HCMF première and a CD release (review coming), that’s happily no longer the case. In many ways æquilibria, the work of Þorvaldsdóttir’s receiving its first UK performance at HCMF, serves as something of a paradigm for her work as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer from a country characterised and constantly being altered by shifting geological activity, her music often avoids concrete statements, preferring the establishment of firmaments, the stability and permanence of which are forever being undermined and questioned. In æquilibria (the title being an archaic plural of equilibrium) this is captured via a series of fundamental pitches—’tonics’ in a post-tonal sense, reinforced by being heard in multiple octaves—over and upon which intricate lines of filigree extend and rival harmonic emphases are brought to bear. As octaves become untenable, other intervals—4ths and 5ths—start to operate as indicators of permanence, Þorvaldsdóttir flirting with conflicting major/minor connotations above them, before threatening these too, roiling low winds at the work’s epicentre leading to a huge surge and ebb, leaving the piece in an entirely unclear state. Read more
This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.
The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year. Read more