You’d have been forgiven for expecting last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group—titled “Parallel Colour”—to be primarily concerned with harmony, or failing that, timbre. But in fact the overriding connection between many of the six featured works was stark economy of means. It’s a phrase that sounds intrinsically praiseworthy, yet the boundary between music sounding impressively restrained (concentrated) and oppressively constrained (dull, lifeless) is a complex one, infinitely thin and all too easy unwittingly to cross. For Jonathan Harvey, whose short solo clarinet piece Cirrus Light was given an intense and excellently controlled performance by Timothy Lines, despite considerable limits of pitch range, dynamic and articulation, the music never felt anything other than entirely free and unbounded. Read more
The annual 5:4 Lent Series is almost upon us, but in the meantime one of the more striking premières i’ve heard recently is a new work for violin and orchestra from US-based British composer Anna Clyne. The work’s title, The Seamstress, comes from W. B. Yeats’ eponymous poem (see below), where a song is made into a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies”; the garment is subsequently robbed, yet the songmaker rather sanguinely concludes “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Clyne’s song takes the form of what she calls an “imaginary one-act ballet”, with five distinct movements, the last recapitulating the first. The temptation would be to describe it as a violin concerto, but in many ways it really isn’t; the solo violin is by no means more important or significant than the orchestra at all times, indeed for much of the piece there’s a strong sense of duet, with the soloist frequently yielding centre-stage. All the same, the violin certainly acts in ways that could be called catalytic, instigating ideas and often leading the way elaborating them. Read more
This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focussed epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more
A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:
Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.
I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.
The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening. Read more
Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnik—was decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. Read more
Two concerts yesterday, on what had punningly come to be known as “Frey-day”, afforded the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the music of Jürg Frey. i’ve been wrangling with how the word ‘ascetic’ sits with respect to Frey’s music. It’s not, i believe, music wearing a hairshirt, but the more i’ve heard of it this week, the more i’ve felt as though i am—which in turn has to make one question seriously what is happening and to what end. This feeling was particularly acute at the midday concert of four of Frey’s compositions, given by Ensemble Grizzana—a new group comprising soloists Mira Benjamin, Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Philip Thomas and Anton Lukoszevieze along with Frey himself. Returning to my String Quartet No. 2 trekking metaphor—forever progressing at a consistent, unstoppable speed—their performance of Fragile Balance resembled a group of walkers taking it in turns to suggest where their communal next step should be taken, followed by everybody taking it. And so on. Guided by a score consisting of “lists of single sounds and little motifs”, aurally this was not a work where a sense of journey was important—after all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this particular journey would likely take a thousand years—but rather the act of travelling. Read more