Thematic series

Free internet music: Kreng

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While we’re still caught up in winter, and before the days get too much lighter, it’s one of the best times of the year to get stuck into the music of Belgian composer Pepijn Caudron, better known as Kreng. He came to my attention around six years ago, when Works for Abattoir Fermé 2007 – 2011 was released, a staggering 3-hour epic box set compiling his work for the eponymous surrealist theatrical troupe. It subsequently became my best album of 2012, and led me to investigate his earlier work, including a pair of EPs dating from the same time Caudron began working with Abattoir Fermé, both of which were released as free downloads.

The Pleiades EP (originally subtitled ‘a.k.a. The Seven Sisters’) was originally released on the Dutch netlabel Fant00m in 2007. Its seven tracks occupy an electroacoustic soundworld similar to that permeating the box set, arranging its collection of recorded elements into a black ambient environment with a distinct air of theatricality. Their recurring rhythmic patterns – sometimes manifested as clear-cut beats, elsewhere more elusive cycles and repetitions – and the music’s claustrophobic monochromaticism bring to mind the better work of Demdike Stare, though Kreng is less concerned with conjuring up a past aesthetic – still less presenting an ersatz rendition of it – than with creating a contemporary habitat that feels aesthetically distant yet familiar, seemingly remote yet chokingly close. The careful deployment of short sampled sounds is also redolent of early John Wall, particularly third track ‘Asterope’, a short but evocative piece combining a bassline with skittery strings, vinyl crackle and a distant noodling piano, which together project something with more than a whiff of doomjazz. Read more

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Free internet music: Martin Stig Andersen – Rabbit at the Airport

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Next up in my series looking at free internet music is a triptych by Danish composer Martin Stig Andersen. To many, Andersen is likely best known for his award-winning music and sound design work on Limbo, one of the most breathtakingly stunning – and, often, terrifying – video games of recent times. A few years before this, from 2006 to 2008, Andersen created the three parts of the wonderfully-named Rabbit at the Airport, a 35-minute work combining electronic sound with bass clarinet, played by Gareth Davis. In my lengthy Dialogue with Davis, we discuss his collaborations with Andersen, and in the course of that discussion (which starts around 1 hour 25 minutes in) i was amazed to learn that all of the electronic sound through the three movements of the piece is directly derived from Davis’ clarinet:

SC: The sound world, especially in the three Rabbit at the Airport pieces, is astonishing, just astonishing. Although the relationship between the [electronic] material and what you’re doing is interesting because there are times, especially the first one, i think, where you are practically squashed by the electronics.

GD: Yes, although everything is me playing, it’s all live.

SC: Is it all you? Everything we hear?

GD: It’s all me, everything you hear is me. He constructed a kind of distortion using the pickup from an old record player, so he has the signal go through a pickup then through a kind of sonar device. So he constructed a mechanical distortion of sorts.

SC: i always thought it was almost like you pitted against the electronics, but in fact it’s all—

GD: It’s all just me. How it goes, as an album, you have this, first, really distorted, mechanical thing. And then when you get to Rabbit at the Airport II, then it’s pitting the real sounds of the clarinet against the distortion. […] And then III is more floaty, the scary rabbit’s gone.

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Free internet music: Altus

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i’m going to start 2018 exploring an area that seems particularly appropriate and indeed desirable in January, in the wake of the financial blow-outs many of us will have made in the run-up and perhaps also aftermath of Christmas: free internet music. This sort of thing used to be primarily located within the purview of netlabels, and while these labels presumably fostered a sense of community, the narrow curatorial outlook demonstrated by the majority of them coupled with – in many cases – the poor standard of much of the music was perhaps responsible above all else for the downfall and/or abandonment of so many of them. Today, few really good netlabels still exist, something i hope to return to later in this series. Initially, and primarily, i’m going to focus on individual composers who have opted to make their work available online free of charge. Apropos: the term ‘free’ can be a contentious one, and in the case of Bandcamp – surely the predominant platform at present for offering music in this way – many artists avoid this terminology in favour of their “Name your price” option (which can, of course, be zero). Maybe it’s just me, but as far as i’m concerned, if someone allows me to name my own price, that price will always be zero. So, with that in mind, everything i’ll be featuring here is either simply free or offered under this more equivocal ‘name your price’ option.

i’ve decided to start with a composer who creates ambient music due to the fact that ambient is itself going to be a recurring theme on 5:4 throughout 2018. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which effectively provided a ‘manifesto’ of sorts for ambient (which already existed in a variety of nascent forms), so at various points in the year i’ll be exploring the history and development of ambient music over the last 40 years.

Returning to free internet music, the issue of quality control (from the composer’s or label’s perspective) and its concomitant necessity for careful discernment (from the listener’s) persists today, and is one that will feature in some of the music i’ll be discussing in this series. It certainly applies in the case of Canadian composer Mike Carss, who under the name Altus has been creating ambient music for around 15 years. In that time he’s produced a great deal of music, almost all of it available free online, though in more recent times he’s charged a small amount for lossless downloads, while the lossy version has remained free. There’s two things i think one needs to bear in mind at the outset when approaching Altus. His enthusiasm and, at its best, talent for ambient music are considerable, and i regard some of his work as among the best ambient i’ve heard. However, the compositional quality overall is quite wildly variable – a seemingly quintessential trait for ambient composers, it seems – though interestingly, in Altus’ case this isn’t manifested as poorer earlier work being trounced by more sophisticated later music. It’s more complicated and unpredictable than that, so i’m going to offer here a guide to the most outstanding examples of his output. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: New Estonian Choral Music, Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies, Galina Grigorjeva – Nature Morte

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To bring this first Estonia in Focus weekend to a close, some excellent CDs of Estonian contemporary choral music have been released in the last few months. Together they admirably demonstrate the considerable range and richness of compositional thought typical of the country’s new music scene. For a broad but in-depth overview of this scene, there’s a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre, the primary and superbly supportive outlet for the country’s musical output (at present, the disc only appears to be available directly from there). It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years.

Folksong, whether clearly invoked or implied, is an influence in several of the pieces. Most obviously in Kristo Matson‘s Three Estonian Folk Songs, a strangely-structured work – the middle ‘song’ is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it hardly counts – and perhaps a little too simplistic for its own good, but with some pretty moments, particularly in the opening song. Piret Rips-Laul‘s Paradisi Gloria is similarly simple, and regarding the album as a whole feels like the odd one out, more redolent of the sugary choral styles so prevalent in the US, tapping into a harmonic world not unlike Morten Lauridsen’s but without the scrunchy diatonics. Also with a folk sensibility, but greater invention and beauty, is Maria Kõrvits‘ work for female choir Haned-luiged (Geese-Swans), essentially homophonic but here and there enriched with sustained chords behind, while Mariliis Valkonen‘s Usalduse jõgi (River of Trust) widens the scope of such simplicity, combining relatively rigid underpinning (via drones) with a mixture of unified declamation and bursts of more textural music. Many of the works on this disc have love as a central theme. In Near by Evelin Seppar, setting texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s implicit rather than stated (Seppar’s partner conducts the choir for whom it was written), though the work’s strong upward movements that coalesce around the phrase “mystic shape”, and the overwhelmingly passionate outpouring heard later, answered by a soft, heartfelt conclusion, make the subtext abundantly clear. Born in 1958, Toivo Tulev is the elder statesman here, and not simply in terms of age: Tulev has acted in the role of composition teacher for four of the other featured composers. Though the two movements from his 2007 vocal cycle Sonnets are unfortunately marred by an imperfect recording (afflicted with a low hum), the stirring melancholy that Tulev wrings from Dante’s La vita nuova is crystal clear. First the choir laments and consoles itself as a kind of close-knit support group, before turning outwards in a more emotionally raw episode that benefits from sounding intuitive, the contrast between loud, high outbursts and sustained softer passages making this arguably the most direct music on the disc. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Galina Grigorjeva – Vespers (World Première)

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A major new choral work was premièred at this year’s Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, by one of the country’s most celebrated composers. Born in the Ukraine, Galina Grigorjeva relocated to Estonia 25 years ago and has since become essentially adopted by the country as one of its own. On 6 April, Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve, gave the first performance of Grigorjeva’s Vespers. It’s an ambitious, 30-minute work in seven movements, each of which sets words (in English) drawn either from the Orthodox prayerbook or passages of the King James Bible. Not all of Grigorjeva’s music shows this so overtly, but the Vespers are clearly indebted to the general aesthetic (if not quite the technique) of Estonia’s most famous composer Arvo Pärt. It’s a different approach from that in some of her other choral work (about which i’ll be writing in due course), but here the music is for the most part intentionally kept emotionally remote, focusing instead on a more austere, one-step-removed mindset that taps deeply into both the soundworld and attitude of Orthodox worship. Perhaps it goes without saying that this won’t necessarily prove inviting for everyone.

Personally, both at the concert and a few months on i remain in two minds about the piece. As i noted in my original review, one of the risks taken by the most fervent religious contemporary composers – most obviously, in recent years, Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, as well as, to an extent, James MacMillan and even, further back, Olivier Messiaen – is that the music can (inadvertently or deliberately) end up depending on the notion of a higher power in order, as i wrote before, “to ‘fill in the blanks’ and imbue the music with some of that power”. This is not true of every piece by these composers, of course, and in most of what i’ve heard of Grigorjeva’s music it certainly isn’t the case. In the Vespers, though, there are times when the music exhibits a kind of listlessness that one senses is precisely one of these places where the ‘magic’ is missing (or not, depending on your spiritual outlook). i’d cite the fifth movement as an example of this, a setting of the Nunc dimittis that’s perfectly pretty but at the same time seriously enervated, to the point that its broad assertive climax sounds terribly forced. Even more, though, is seventh movement ‘I will bless the Lord’, an extended setting of Psalm 34 that arguably pushes things too far for too long. There’s nothing wrong with a composition resembling (or indeed, for the composer, being) an act of worship, but in this movement the music seems to be leaving a very obvious spiritual ‘outline’ that – again, depending on where you’re coming from – either does or doesn’t get filled in. It’s a shame this is how the work ends. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Cyrillus Kreek – Psalms 121, 137, 141

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Estonia’s highly imaginative approach to choral music is not in any way a recent development. The country’s most dominant figure of the earlier twentieth century is Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), who in addition to being a composer was also a choral conductor and a collector of both Estonian and Swedish folk music. Not only did he make countless arrangements of these songs and hymns throughout his life, but they permeated Kreek’s own choral compositions which, while they display the superficially aloof demeanour typical of hymnody, retain an intense, personal immediacy that makes them powerfully poignant. Kreek’s oeuvre has been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent decades. His music was essentially outlawed after World War II for reasons of politics and ideology, but since the late 1980s, coinciding with Kreek’s centenary and, shortly after, the re-establishment of Estonian independence, Kreek has been increasingly celebrated as a composer of surprising ingenuity as well as, from a religious perspective, ecumenicity, drawing on a variety of forms of Christianity, from both East and West.

Three of Kreek’s Taaveti laulud – settings of verses from the Biblical Psalms of David – were featured at this year’s Estonian Music Days, and they demonstrate something of the quietly adventurous nature of Kreek’s music. His treatment of Psalm 121, composed in 1923, is one of simple contrasts, juxtaposing low, lugubrious references to lifting one’s eyes to the hills (as though afflicted with tiredness, only achieved with effort) with a lighter middle section reflecting on the nature of God, introducing richer harmonies, filled with hanging sevenths. Having created a warmer soundworld, Kreek takes the music back down into the depths from whence they came.

His take on Psalm 137, which dates from 1944, is more substantial. One of the most painful of the Psalms (lamenting the Israelites languishing in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem), Kreek’s setting is very much more Orthodox in nature, using male voices only, homophonic and following a chant-like procession throughout. The air of melancholy is kept understated at first, suddenly plunged into tonally-conflicted plangency at the prospect of being forced to sing “one of the songs of Zion”. But what makes the piece yet more emotionally broken is its other Orthodox trapping, inserting ‘Hallelujah’ at the end of each phrase. The effect in such a context as this – in terms of both words and music – is highly dramatic, bespeaking an inspiring determination to praise even in the midst of profound suffering. It brings to mind the line from W. H. Auden’s ‘Atlantis’, “Stagger onward rejoicing”, and injects into Kreek’s mournful music an extra layer of poignancy, particularly as these Hallelujahs themselves become harmonically contorted, at the end setting up a drone that underpins the final line (with a beautifully extended final Hallelujah). This is music at its most transparently heartbroken, where all that remains is hope. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes – To My End and to Its End… (World Première)

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A few months back, i reported on the goings-on at the Estonian Music Days, the second year running that i’d attended the festival. During this time, i’ve become increasingly interested in the country’s new musical endeavours, which for various reasons – both our fault and theirs – remain almost entirely unknown and unheard here in the UK (in one of my articles i outline some reasons why). i’m therefore going to address that by devoting a couple of long weekends to focusing on some of the more interesting music i’ve encountered from Estonia recently. It’s fitting to feature the first weekend now, as today is Võidupüha, ‘Victory Day’, when Estonians celebrate a military victory against the German forces in 1919 (the Battle of Võnnu), part of the Estonian War of Independence that continued until 1920. The memories and scars of Estonia’s back-and-forth with independence throughout the twentieth century have played and continue to play a major part in its cultural life and identity, a fact that will probably emerge in some of my forthcoming discussions about their music. For this weekend i’m focusing on the type of music for which Estonia should perhaps be most loudly celebrated: choral music.

By far the most outstanding new choral work that i’ve heard in recent times – both from Estonia and, i suspect, anywhere else – is Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes‘ To My End and to Its End…, which was premièred in Tallinn back in April. For her text, Kozlova-Johannes has turned to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, setting most of his poem from which the work takes its title (the entire poem can be read here). The poem speaks of a difficult and dangerous journey Darwish and his father made across the Lebanon-Palestine border (he and his family had been forced to flee to Lebanon during the 1948 Palestinian war), made under cover of darkness and with death an omnipresent possibility. Kozlova-Johannes has removed the few lines that mention geographical specifics, enabling the text to speak more generally about the threat posed by nearby borders. This is particularly apt from the perspective of Estonia, who only wrenched back their independence from neighbouring Russia in 1991, and where a palpable sense of disquiet – exacerbated by the sabre-rattling reign of Vladimir Putin – persists today. Furthermore, the fact that Kozlova-Johannes is herself Russian-born – she settled in Estonia in the mid-1990s – adds an extra layer of potency to the subtext. Read more

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