Premières

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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Catherine Lamb – portions transparent/opaque (World Première)

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I am interested in the long introduction (unfolding) form, in elemental tonal interaction, in aggregation and augmentation, in liminal perceptual states, shifts in density, the filtered atmosphere, and intense, focused experiences.

This is how US composer Catherine Lamb summarised her music to me in 2017. On that occasion, they served as an introduction to her then new piece Prisma Interius V, being premièred at that year’s Proms, but they apply just as much to portions transparent/opaque, composed in 2014. The work’s title hints at the presence of light, and this is primarily explored in an atmosphere of constantly shifting colour and clarity. In addition to these aspects, Lamb throws in a couple more, titling the work’s two movements ‘expand’ and ‘saturate’ respectively, suggesting something of the way this atmosphere manifests within its broader theoretical space or boundaries.

Using just the strings of the orchestra, ‘expand’ sets up thin, drawn-out lines of microtonal pitch, shaded with varying quantities of noise. Initially, though faint, these lines are concentrated in a small space, like the beam of a flashlight in thick fog. The fact that it’s obviously a tight cluster makes no difference to the integrity of what is practically a single, multifaceted line. Only very slowly does the titular expansion start to take effect, the widening harmonic palette articulated in alternation with brief hiatuses. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

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Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly. Read more

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