It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced. Read more
It’s Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark today, the closest the country gets to a national day, so i thought i’d mark the occasion with a piece by one of the country’s best-known composers that i’ve been spending time with lately. It’s a re-thinking by Per Nørgård of one of his earlier works, Remembering Child, a viola concerto written in 1986 in commemoration of Samantha Smith, the 13-year old American girl who became famous for contacting Yuri Andropov to express her fears about the possibility of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. Material taken from that piece, in conjunction with some “nocturnal sketches”, resulted in a new double concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra simply titled Three Nocturnal Movements.
Concertos, whether composers intend them to or not, inevitably raise the question of the nature of the relationship between soloist(s) and orchestra, with concomitant aspects of influence and power-play, the individual pitted against the mass. But in the Three Nocturnal Movements, the answer to this question is obvious: from start to finish the two soloists are emphatically at the helm of the entire musical argument. This stems directly from a generalised atmosphere of somewhat lugubrious vagueness, from which even the soloists are not exempt. On the one hand, it’s apparent that violin and cello have something important to say, from the outset tripping over themselves to articulate it (literally, the two lines overlap each other throughout). Yet on the other hand, it’s also apparent that a predetermined sense of direction is seemingly very far from anyone’s minds. Pensivity reigns. Read more
It was announced yesterday that Georg Friedrich Haas will be composer-in-residence at this year’s HCMF, and that among the works receiving their first UK performances will be the Octet for eight trombones. Composed last year, it’s a remarkable piece, commissioned by Hannover Trombone Unit, a group of graduates from Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media, who are clearly up for more than the usual kind of challenge. When composers assemble unusual line-ups of instruments like this, they invariably have a very specific idea in mind that they’re looking to exploit. Uppermost in Haas’ mind, it seems, were the microtonal possibilities not so much with respect to individual instruments but in relation to and conjunction with each other. His use of them, including quarter-, sixth- and eighth-tones, is hugely striking but also borderline sadistic.
i’ve recently returned from a trip to Tallinn to experience some of the annual Estonian Music Days (my reviews can be read over on Bachtrack). In a bit of spare time one afternoon, i finally got around to examining the forthcoming Proms season, and i don’t think it’s entirely due to the fact i was in the midst of a genuinely bold, experimental festival that, from the perspective of new music, Proms 2016 seems so poor bordering on lamentable. In terms of quantity, contemporary music – always a tertiary concern at the Proms after 1) established repertoire and 2) the increasingly desperate need to appear ‘trendy’ – isn’t represented too badly, with 52 works scattered throughout the season (only six of which are by women composers), including 13 world and 10 UK premières. But the choices, particularly in the case of the world premières, are appallingly predictable and narrow-minded, and the less said about the decision to perform Steve Reich in Peckham’s Bold Tendencies car park the better, as it may be an all-time low for the Proms, clearly trying to imitate LCMF. It’s hard to believe the decision-makers have a meaningful grip on what’s actually going on in contemporary music; certainly, if this is indicative of David Pickard’s vision for the Proms, that vision is suffering from an extreme case of myopia. Read more
In 2004, Michael Finnissy was invited to contribute to an edition of the journal The Liberal, specifically an issue devoted to the subject of outer space. Finnissy chose to adopt the journal’s title and apply the idea to perfomers responding “liberally to the score”, which comprised two pages of graphic notation, designed “to roughly convey an impression of Saturn’s rings”. The two pages are independent, performed simultaneously, one intended for single-stave instruments, the other for keyboards; the members of the ensemble, which is unspecified, make their own way through this material, guided both by the individual notes and phrases themselves as well as by the looming concentric rings that dominate the pages (see below). Read more
An interesting, small-scale example of Michael Finnissy‘s take on folk music is his re-thinking of the Northumbrian tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’ (“a long Felton lane”). Finnissy places the traditional Northumbrian pipes alongside piano, viola and cello, all of which initially sound saturated by the harmony, contours and the tone of the tune, which stands out in the foreground. The piano offers similarly decorative counterpoint, weaving around the pipes, while the strings lay down slow-moving sustained notes, effecting a kind of extension of the pipes’ drones. Read more
Perhaps the key recurring characteristic of Michael Finnissy‘s music is an engagement with existing musical ideas, embracing (and that’s exactly the right word) folk and popular idioms. This engagement is nothing less than an audible wrangling with it from root to tip, as though Finnissy were handling it like plasticine, moulding it into new shapes while considering its constituent elements, in ways that are both analytic and playful. And, indeed, unpredictable, as is the case with his short work Dust, composed in 2008. Read more