Premières

National Maritime Museum, London: Hollie Harding – Melting, Shifting, Liquid World (World Première)

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Contemporary music taking place in unconventional places and spaces has to a large extent become the new normal, as has the concomitant tendency for composers to mould their creativity into site-specific works. A striking example of this took place last Saturday at the National Maritime Museum in London, for the first performances of Hollie Harding‘s Melting, Shifting, Liquid World. Harding is currently a PhD student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire – just a hop and a skip up the road from the museum – and her research is concerned with, among other things, “investigating space and action – movement – as elements of composition”.

For Melting, Shifting, Liquid World this basic premise has been shaped by concerns about climate change and ocean pollution. The piece is made up of three distinct elements. The first consists of a string orchestra, the members of which are dispersed throughout the performance space and who at certain points move around it. A solo electric viola is the second element, positioned at the centre of the space and acting to coordinate and cue the string players during the piece. On this occasion those parts were played by soloist Nic Pendlebury and the Trinity Laban String Ensemble. The work is completed by an electronic part heard by the audience through bone-conducting headphones, enabling one to to experience all three elements simultaneously. Use of this type of headphones wasn’t just a clever solution to the question of how to place the audience within three discrete layers of sound and perceive them all clearly and distinctly: spacial and directional sense is lost when sound is conducted in this way, resulting in a peculiarly intimate form of listening in which the sound appears to be materialising inside one’s head as if from nowhere. So the result was an entirely different, much more expansive sense of immersion than one usually experiences. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 2)

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Nearly but not quite everything that took place at this year’s Borealis festival was light years away from the world of conventional concert performances. The most notable exception to this was the first event i attended, at the Nykirken on Friday evening, given by Sjøforsvarets musikkorps, the Norwegian Naval Forces Band, conducted by Ingar Bergby. They presented three works, two by Norwegian composers and the other by British composer James Clapperton. Written in 2012, Clapperton’s Doroga Zhizni was by far the most overtly earnest of the three pieces. A saxophone concerto written as a commemoration of the Siege of Leningrad, it was difficult to know to what extent this considerable layer of baggage helped or hindered the work. Which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Though its musical language was staunchly conservative, often channelling post-minimalistic prettiness, the interplay between soloist René Wilk (for whom the work was written) and the band was at times highly dramatic. This was the piece at its best; when Clapperton sought to tap into the emotional heft of his subject the music became a generic kind of insipid ‘In memoriam lite’, pseudo-emotive blather that did its inspiration neither any favours nor sufficient justice. It would perhaps have been best to hear the piece without any knowledge of its supposed backstory; as it was, reconciling what we heard with Clapperton’s aspirations proved all but impossible.

It was also quite difficult to square the notes for Therese B. Ulvo‘s Excavation – which spoke about digging away at the brilliance and beauty of the wind band, causing it to be “stripped down to its bones”, and exploring what remained – with the music itself, but in practice it hardly mattered. The piece threw together various opposites, initially managing to sound simultaneously refined and primitive (distantly evoking something of Stravinsky) and putting equal emphasis on melody and noise. In addition to this, while the band as a whole were generally in consensus about their activities and behaviour, the harmonic nature of the music floated completely freely. Only later did it more demonstratively draw nearer to the implications of its title, ideas becoming ‘stuck’ and being explored at length, almost as if they were being worn down and eroded. The weirdly fanfaric way Excavation developed a fin de siècle quality later on was fascinating and the latter half of the piece in particular was deeply engrossing, ultimately unleashing walls of noise so enormous they practically blew themselves out. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – The Field is Woven (World Première)

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The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.

It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The Field is Woven this sequence sounds positively hurried. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 1)

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“En festival for eksperimentall musikk”. That’s the strapline for arguably Norway’s most progressive contemporary music festival, Borealis, some of which i was fortunate to attend in Bergen last week. As straplines go it’s almost laughably simple, yet its implications turned out to be impressively far-reaching. The key word, of course, is ‘eksperimentall’, and while many new music festivals are very good at challenging musical boundaries, i’ve not encountered many that have so fearlessly challenged musical hierarchies and definitions. Of the former, there was no meaningful sense in which any particular compositional, performative or presentational aesthetic, approach or outlook – no matter how conventional or radical – was in any way privileged or favoured; of the latter, on numerous occasions i found myself not merely pondering the usual questions about intention and outcome and the like, but much more fundamental matters: “can this even be regarded as music?”. Experiments – true experiments, at least – inevitably take place within a context of belief and risk, contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with safety or comfort, and as such there was absolutely no doubting that, in the truest possible sense, everything i experienced at Borealis was to some degree “eksperimentall musikk”. Read more

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Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir – In Praise of Darkness (UK Première)

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One of the things i particularly enjoy when listening is the sense of not knowing where i am, uncertain of what exactly the music is doing or where it’s going: of being kept, for a time at least, in the dark. It’s this kind of ‘darkness’ that i think typifies the orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness, by Icelandic composer Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir.

Much of the work’s first half exhibits an interesting ambivalence, caught between impulses towards reticence and confidence. The latter can be heard both in a repeated-note idea that appears near the beginning, starting in low flutes and migrating through the winds, but most strongly in loud, deep notes intoned by the brass. The former manifests in a more global sense of caution that pervades the whole orchestra, in which sounds feel placed with fastidious consideration and care, and where no particular idea has sufficient impetus to cause a catalytic effect. As a consequence, details emerge and dissipate, and everything seems to be hanging in space with the range of movement of a mobile. Read more

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

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Liisa Hirsch – Lävi (World Première)

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Being the first day of the season of Lent, today marks the start of the 5:4 Lent Series. This year, i’m going to be exploring works written for full orchestra, beginning with a piece by Estonian Liisa Hirsch. Hirsch is an intriguing composer; i’m still at a relatively early stage of getting to know her work well, but what i’ve encountered thus far suggests that, among other things, texture – or, more specifically, the way a texture changes over time – seems to be significant in her work.

That’s certainly the case in Lävi [‘threshold’] which i was fortunate to hear a couple of years ago during the Estonian Music Days. There’s a lot going on in the piece, but it makes most sense to speak of it in quite general terms. The title is all-important. ‘Threshold’ is an interesting word to use in a musical context as it indicates both stasis, referencing a fixed point, and movement, implying progression through or past that point with the concomitant suggestion of an ensuing effect or change in state. In the specific context of Hirsch’s music, it seems to me that the emphasis is put not simply on the duality but the liminality of this idea, focusing on the identity of material, the nature of change between identities and what constitutes the tipping point from one to the other. Read more

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