Premières

HCMF 2017: We Spoke, London Sinfonietta + Irvine Arditti, GGR Betong

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Yesterday at HCMF was decidedly mixed. Contemporary music-making aiming to be radical, at the cutting edge, obviously involves risk. That risk in turn requires a considerable amount of trust: from commissioners and investors, stumping up the cash; from performers, committing to learn and perfect the material; from concert organisers, providing a platform and technical support; and from audiences, sacrificing money and time to engage with it. That trust was sorely tested in the afternoon concert in Phipps Hall given by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. Not too terribly in H and B by Simon Løffler, works that put so much emphasis on their visual and physical aspects – the former involving tuning forks and a machine with four rotating blades, the latter a system of pedals illuminating three lights in different combinations – that their aural content felt impoverished and vapid by comparison; all very unfortunate, but not particularly uncommon in new music concerts. Fritz Hauser‘s Schraffur was less convincing and musically rich than in its recorded version, which i reviewed early last year; i wonder whether it was seeing the gong-based rhythmic scrapings going on that rendered the effect less impressive and diminished its uncanny long-term potential (the recording, let me stress, is very striking indeed). Yet while these works merely taxed our trust – and this was absolutely no fault of We Spoke, who executed each piece superbly – it was well and truly squandered by Hanna Hartman‘s Shadow Box. Its twelve minutes of cracking open eggs and nuts and punching bags filled with air (i came to empathise with how each bag felt) was less a performance – still less music – than a crime scene in which the Emperor had his entire wardrobe nicked. i don’t think i’ve ever witnessed that trust i spoke of being not merely wasted, but egregiously exploited; if Hartman has any talent at all, precisely none of it was demonstrated in this shamefully vacuous crap. Miraculously, despite all this it was worth attending the concert to experience Cathy van Eck‘s Wings, receiving its UK première. Her work involving performers interacting with loudspeakers is always fascinating, and Wings didn’t disappoint. A ballet involving three large panels slowly being re-positioned around the space, altering the nature, effect and accumulation of feedback generated from microphones around the stage facing a single loudspeaker at the back, was wonderful, effortlessly achieving what every other work in this concert singularly failed to do, creating a perfect, seamless, mesmeric marriage of sight and sound. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Gęba Vocal Ensemble, Zwerm

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A few days ago, in relation to the (non-)performance at HCMF of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, i considered the question of what noise might be the opposite of, as a means to help defining what noise can actually be. But noise doesn’t have to be regarded as an opposite, or a polar extreme of a particular quality or characteristic, it can simply be something heard in relation to itself. i’m sure the late, great Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski would have concurred with this. His unique take on noise seems to me to have been articulated primarily in two ways, either regarding and treating it almost like a physical substance, focused upon with a laser-like intensity, or to set it up as a kind of ‘default condition’, the starting point from which – and within which – development and exploration take place. From this latter perspective (pace Shakespeare and Alex Ross) the rest is neither silence nor noise: practically speaking, there is no “rest”, noise is all there is. We use a word like ‘atmosphere’ to refer to the general mood created by a piece of music, but in Karkowski’s case it’s a much more literal atmosphere, an environment in which noise is as ubiquitous as air.

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HCMF 2017: Shorts

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i’ve been starting to wonder in recent years whether HCMF’s annual ‘Shorts’ day – on Monday, filled with free concerts lasting either 20 or 40 minutes – is actually one of the festival’s main highlights, rivalling the flagship events on the two weekends. It’s certainly an opportunity for musical experiences unlike anything you’re likely to find elsewhere, and this year’s was no exception.

What struck me most was the way entire concerts – rather than individual pieces within them – cohered so entirely as to become akin to a single composition. In the case of Dominic Murcott‘s Harmonic Canon (a world première), this was an especially impressive achievement as the two parts of the work were separated by a gap of over six hours. The work is structured around the imposing form of a large double-bell, which becomes both the visual and musical epicentre of its two 21-minute movements for percussion duo. Two bells, two fundamental pitches (the bells are tuned a semitone apart), two movements, two players, two separate groups of instruments – and in other ways too duality is at the heart of Harmonic Canon. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Polish Radio Choir, Karin Hellqvist

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For the first twenty minutes of the concert given by the Polish Radio Choir in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday, i was forming the view that, though what we’d heard seemed at odds with his description, Dai Fujikura had nonetheless composed not only two of his best ever works, but better than much of the new choral music i’ve heard in the last few years. However, then Polish composer Agata Zubel came onto the stage to take a bow, and it transpired we hadn’t been told that the entire running order had changed. Only now, after this, did we actually hear the UK and world premières of Fujikura’s Zawazawa and Sawasawa respectively, and as it turned out they were a much more conventional and humdrum affair. Zawazawa was interesting for a time, a mixture of homophonic writing with a muscular delivery giving the impression of a single voice refracted or multiplied into a much larger manifestation. It was let down by an excess of repetition, but quite pretty at times. Sawasawa, by contrast, was thoroughly confused, mainly due to the addition of a marimba that at almost no point seemed connected or related to what the choir was doing. Or, indeed, relevant; often it seemed as though two entirely separate pieces were being played simultaneously. All very odd. Read more

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HCMF 2017: The Otheroom, Ensemble Modern + Arditti Quartet, zeitkratzer perform Kraftwerk

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Yesterday at HCMF was unusual, personally speaking, as for the most part it involved hearing music not for the first time. In the evening at St Paul’s Hall, Ensemble Modern and the Arditti Quartet gave the first UK performances of Carola Bauckholt‘s Laufwerk, Christopher Trapani‘s PolychROME and Brian Ferneyhough‘s 45-minute collection of ‘encounters’ with the music of Christopher Tye, Umbrations. Bauckholt’s work was new to me, and it worked well as a concert-opener, moving through a sequence of motoric episodes, each one an imitation then an elaboration of a collection of prerecorded sounds made by Bauckholt “when I was alone”. Though not particularly memorable, it was energising and fun. i’ve written at some length about the Trapani and Ferneyhough works following their premières in Witten earlier this year. Hearing PolychROME again was a real treat, and on the strength of this second hearing i came away feeling that the piece works rather like a trap. Behaviourally, it quite quickly feels settled, inasmuch as its ants-in-the-pants jerks and spasms, qualified by brief chord swells, becomes almost too familiar. The turning point – and in hindsight, it’s hard not to hear this as Trapani heralding the start of what’s discreetly about to happen – comes with a prominent horn passage, almost fanfaric. As the music continues, dryer and sharper than ever, one becomes aware that everything is becoming more and more shrill, like a blurred scream coming more and more into the sharpest of focus. And before you even know how you got there, the entire ensemble is shrieking at you, each one louder and more relentlessly cranium-drilling than the last, triggering in the hall a welter of hands being rushed to lightweight ears. Absolutely wonderful. As for the Ferneyhough, hearing it again surprisingly made it sound less rich and ‘romantic’ than it had seemed a few months ago. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Red Note Ensemble, Metal Machine Music, Aeolian

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Here we go again (deep breath)…

The opening concert of the 40th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival immediately gave one pause for thought. What it wasn’t was a conventional wallop, a smack around the ears to wake us up out of our complacency, such as the one given by Jennifer Walshe and the Ardittis twelve months ago (from which i’m still not sure i’ve fully recovered). What it was though, at least in part, was a demonstration of the importance, potential and power of lyricism. If this sounds a bit slight in comparison, it isn’t, for in itself it’s another example of how open-minded HCMF has become under Graham McKenzie’s leadership. i have to confess that, prior to McKenzie taking over, my interest in HCMF had dwindled to nothing, due to how narrow and entirely predictable it had become. Somewhere along the way, the capacity for music to breathe and to provide scope for extended lyrical contemplation got essentially squeezed out. At last night’s opening concert in St Paul’s Hall given by Red Note Ensemble, there was almost a sense of defiance in the way one piece after another contributed to an atmosphere that, by its close, had become almost opulent. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Marcin Stańczyk – some drops… (UK Première)

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Some make their journeys alone.
Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings.
They connect and they divide. This may seem unpredictable.
But you can guess which paths they will take.
In the end, most of them follow their forebears.
It’s gravity, apparently.

While some composers persist in providing lengthy diegetical tracts to explain their compositions, at HCMF 2016 Polish composer Marcin Stańczyk provided the above text to accompany the first UK performance of his piece some drops… for double-bell trumpet and ensemble. As i’ve got to know the work better since that first encounter, these words have made more and more sense. Stańczyk initially places the solo trumpet at the back of the space, behind the audience (“Some make their journeys alone”). But as the work progresses, the soloist slowly walks forward, eventually joining up with the rest of the ensemble, which is itself continually reforming into different groups (“Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings./They connect and they divide”).

The lines that then suggest that the apparent unpredictability can be guessed are, i think, more subtle than simply suggesting that we as listeners can work out what’s going to happen and when. That certainly isn’t the case, and to my mind this is more about the nature of the material being explored throughout the piece which, as i said in my original review, seems to be “teetering at the cusp of letting loose something warm and familiar”. This seemingly comes from nowhere, emerging in the wake of the work’s opening minutes where a strange pulse is set up, with sporadic single-note chirps from left and right. Is it sinister? vague? preparatory? Whatever it is, it’s at something of a distance until around three and a half minutes in, when the weird sense of a (neo-)romantic musical urge starts to exert itself, nothing more than a rising 3-note motif that might be the beginnings of a melody. Stańczyk ever-so-gently reinforces it with a pizzicato double bass, but it ends up becoming lost in the haze that characterises this portion of the piece.  Read more

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HCMF revisited: Michael Cutting – I AM A STRANGE LOOP V (World Première)

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In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.

It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint. Read more

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Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

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i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 1,096 votes were cast, an increase of 17% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted. Read more

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Proms 2017: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

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After eight weeks of (for the most part) serious music-making, the Last Night of the Proms, quite reasonably, is primarily disposed to the aim of letting of steam and just having fun. For the contemporary composer chosen to get the evening going each year, the enormous sense of occasion – even more so than at the first night – must be so impossible to ignore (and why would you?) that one can’t help wondering to what extent they feel their creativity is being given an opportunity to shine or simply go through the expected motions. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, from the 1995 Proms, remains a benchmark for ruthless originality in this concert, though it’s worth remembering that that particular piece was not a concert-opener, but occupied a prime position later in the concert. How nice it would be if the tradition of commissioning a world première for the last night could return to being a more major work in the concert rather than the amuse-bouche that the Proms seems to believe is sufficient. Perhaps then composers could do their own thing both more expansively and in the way they’d really like, although the experience and aftermath of Panic may well have scared off the Proms organisers for good on that score. (Apropos: i wonder what would shock people today?)

Nonetheless, one or two of the commissions in recent years – i’m thinking particularly of Tom Harrold’s Raze (2016) and Mark Simpson’s Sparks (2012) – have demonstrated the capacity and the courage to try and squeeze some imagination into their tiny sliver of the evening. And the same was true of last night’s curtain-raiser, Flounce, by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Lotta Wennäkoski

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This evening, Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski‘s new work Flounce will literally become the beginning of the end, getting started the Last Night of the Proms. For the final time this year then, here are my pre-première questions, together with Wennäkoski’s answers and her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Lotta for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Missy Mazzoli – Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (European Première); Catherine Lamb – Prisma Interius V; Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – The Minutes (World Premières)

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The last three Proms premières, though very different in some respects, shared some important things in common. All of them, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Prisma Interius V by Catherine Lamb and The Minutes by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, eschew silence and focus primarily on harmonic movement – or, more specifically, on the (juxta)positioning of pitches to harmonic ends. In tandem with this, they also all broadly adopt an approach that treats the performance space as a vessel into which sound is poured.

For Missy Mazzoli, the space was, literally, space, her music cast “in the shape of a solar system” (her words). The piece began life in 2013, in a version for chamber orchestra that she later expanded to full orchestra, and which was first performed in February last year. Drawing on the double-meaning of ‘sinfonia’, which in Italian used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, this can be felt in the way pitches are drawn-out and sustained and slide, and in the small ornamental embellishments (ever so slightly redolent of James MacMillan) that are quickly established to be one of the work’s most characteristic musical elements. In its own particular way, the music clearly wants to sing – its melodic urge is paramount – but the way it does this is always in relation to and as a somewhat secondary consideration to its harmonic foundation, which is mobile yet attracted to certain fundamentals, drifting between poles of tonal certitude. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Catherine Lamb

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Concert halls be damned! Tonight the Proms makes another of its peripatetic excursions beyond the confines of the Royal Albert Hall, paying a first visit to The Tanks at Tate Modern. Among the music being performed will be the world première of Prisma Interius V by experimental American composer Catherine Lamb. To get you whetted and prepped, here are her responses to my pre-première questions, along with a programme note for her piece. Many thanks to Catherine for her answers.
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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Missy Mazzoli

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This evening’s Prom concert includes the first European performance of the orchestral version of Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by US composer Missy Mazzoli. For those unfamiliar with her work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Missy for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers (World Première)

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The latest orchestral work by British composer Hannah Kendall received its first performance a couple of nights ago at a late night Prom given by Chineke! Orchestra, the flagship orchestra of the Chineke! Foundation, established a couple of years ago “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe”. As she described in her answers to my pre-première questions, her new piece The Spark Catchers takes its inspiration and title from a poem by Lemn Sissay. The text pays homage to the London matchgirls who in 1888 went on strike in protest at their long hours, meagre pay and dangerous working conditions, involving serious, potentially fatal, risks to their health. Throughout the poem, Sissay plays on the triple-meaning of the word ‘strike’, alluding to the industrial action as well as the motion that causes matches to ignite (in hindsight, i wonder whether ‘Strike’ would have been an even more suitable title for Kendall’s piece), but most specifically the call that went up in the factory when a loose spark shot out, threatening to set everything ablaze, whereupon one of the women would leap to catch the spark before it could touch anything. Requiring a remarkable combination of reflexes and dexterity, Sissay praises “the magnificent grace / The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air / The precision, perfection and the peace.” Read more

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Proms 2017: Andrea Tarrodi – Liguria (UK Première)

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Last night saw the second UK première by a Swedish composer at this year’s Proms, this time from Andrea Tarrodi. For those unfamiliar with her work, the key part of her responses to my pre-première questions was the reference to her parallel passion for painting, plus the related fact that she continues to “connect music with images and colours”. Though she didn’t use the term, in essence she’s an impressionist, creating musical canvasses that evoke, allude and suggest, according to an underlying semi-programmatic scheme. She’s also something of a minimalist, not simply in obvious cycling rhythms and consonances (which she uses sparingly and loosely), but in a slim-line approach to material, setting up ideas and motifs that are then re-used and re-worked, sometimes at length. That may suggest that melody is of lesser importance to Tarrodi, yet her use of motifs is often such that they are either a nascent form of a melody or capable of being easily expanded into one. Another way of putting it would be to regard her approach to melody as being compact and somewhat implicit. Highlands, her cello concerto written in 2013, is a revealing case in point, in which the soloist engages in some lengthy passages of melody (particularly the lengthy cadenza halfway through) – generally more lyrical than virtuosic – but most often is involved in intricate, complex textures with the rest of the orchestra which highlight a simple recurring motif, characterised by a falling minor third.

Originally written for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (who premièred it in 2012), Tarrodi’s orchestral work Liguria demontrates precisely the same compositional outlook and approach. Named for the Ligurian Sea in the Mediterranean, it depicts Tarrodi’s memories of a time when she visited the area. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Hannah Kendall

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Today’s late-evening Prom given by the Chineke! orchestra opens with a new work by British composer Hannah Kendall, titled The Spark Catchers. In preparation, here are Kendall’s answers to my pre-première questions, together with the work’s programme note. Many thanks to Hannah for her answers. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Andrea Tarrodi

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Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi‘s orchestral piece Liguria, composed in 2012, receives its first UK performance at this evening’s Prom concert. Her music is new to me and, i’m sure, to many others, so her answers to my pre-première questions provide some invaluable background information, along with her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Andrea for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

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They may start to behave in ways that are challenging and distressing, both for themselves and those around them. For example, they may:

  • become restless or agitated
  • shout out or scream
  • become suspicious of others
  • follow someone around
  • ask the same question repeatedly.

It is important to look at why the person is behaving this way and try to identify which needs are not being met. This will mean trying to see things from their perspective as much as possible. Meeting a person’s needs appropriately can make these behaviours easier to cope with, or prevent them from happening in the first place.

The above words are paraphrased from guidelines on how to respond to someone grappling with the effects of dementia. They’re a useful starting point, i think for considering the output of Gerald Barry, particularly his most recent offering, Canada, premièred at the Proms last Monday. For while Barry himself may not display the signs of this affliction (though, listening to his painfully weird pre-concert interview with Louise Fryer, one wonders), his music most certainly does. It’s perhaps the archetypal ‘Marmite music’: you either think it’s the best thing since – and the perfect accompaniment to – sliced bread, or a ghastly streak of shit-coloured malevolence that you wish with all your being had never come into existence. Read more

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Proms 2017: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove, Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Preludes (World Premières)

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As will have been clear from my 38th mixtape back in April, my love affair with the organ has been a long and significant one. It’s an instrument that often gets overlooked in the world of contemporary music, so a definite plus of this year’s Proms season has been the opportunity to hear three new works for the instrument. They come courtesy of organist William Whitehead, who has been curating the Orgelbüchlein Project, commissioning composers to complete Bach’s Little Organ Book, which was originally planned to span the entire liturgical year, but Bach only finished 46 of the intended 164 chorale preludes. The newest additions to the project are by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove and Daniel Saleeb, and were premièred by Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday. Read more

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