Thematic series

Contemporary Epics: V/Vm – The Death of Rave

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In the last few days i’ve highlighted some impressive examples of music composed on an ‘epic’ scale. i’ve saved the biggest until last, but even by saying that, i’ve touched on an inherent danger lurking in a discussion of this kind. When any musical parameter is taken to a compositional extreme, the mere act of doing that starts to rupture a work’s integrity, as much æsthetically as practically. Let’s put it another way; what interests me so much in a work like Robert Rich’s Somnium is both what he’s striving to do and the way in which he’s trying to do it. It’s a piece that requires its duration to be extreme, but it’s not a piece about duration; the danger is to put undue—or, worse, all—emphasis on that one aspect, and thereby fracture one’s holistic appreciation of the piece. One might argue, reasonably, that it’s difficult to ignore the durational aspect of a work lasting seven hours; but that’s not, hopefully, what one’s thinking about as each minute passes in Somnium—or, indeed, in the Trilogy in Three Parts, Blemished Breasts, or July 17, 2010. When setting out to explore these five ‘contemporary epics’, extended duration was my common thread, but i hope it’s been clear that that aspect is ultimately an integral component in a much larger and richer whole; in a nutshell, what these pieces share is that their extensive durations fully support and are at the service of the music. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Robert Rich – Somnium

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In the previous few articles, it may seem as though i’ve been avoiding the very obvious elephant in the room. So let’s confront it now: large-scale musical ‘epics’ of the kind i’ve been exploring present formidable problems to the listener. Assuming one can find the time to devote to it, there’s the issue of focus, of trying to maintain some semblance of concentration for a very much longer-than-usual period of time; furthermore, attempting to hear each passing event within the wider context of the whole (rather than just listening superficially) becomes a strenuous and potentially unwieldy activity. i accept that these are very real challenges with such music, and while i can speak from experience and state that it’s something that becomes much less of a problem the more one becomes acquainted with large-scale music, the fourth ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to examine is a work that could be said to tackle the reality of this situation head-on—or, at least, take a fundamentally different approach to it.

The composer Robert Rich established his reputation in the early 1980s, as a composer whose live performances took place through the night. In part they were concerts, yet more importantly to Rich they were experiments, investigating the ways in which sound can stimulate periods of REM sleep. At these events, the audience would take its place on the floor, actively encouraged—and this may sound paradoxical—to interact with Rich’s performance through the act of sleep, engaging with the music through the gauze of a semi-conscious mind. These “sleep concerts” directly influenced the albums Rich released around this time; his debut album Sunyata (1982) pared down its content to a minimum—echoing the title, which is a Buddhist concept approximating to ’emptiness’ or ‘void’—while at the same time greatly expanding its duration to better facilitate a meditative listening state (originally released on cassette, the album was unusual at lasting almost 86 minutes). The titles of his next two albums, Trances and Drones (both 1983), made explicit the kind of deeply subliminal interrelationship Rich wanted his music to have with its audience, whether experienced live or at home.

The most telling example of this is his magnum opus Somnium, released in 2001. Having alluded to the nature of the “sleep concerts” through a prolific series of albums, on Somnium Rich sought to return to the source and directly replicate that experience. The only way to do that faithfully was for the music to be heard right through the night; hence the reason for Somnium‘s massive duration, lasting a little over seven hours. So Somnium presents the listener with the ultimate challenge, a work of unprecedented length, but it also presents its own solution, stated clearly in the title, inviting its audience to experience it through sleep. In the accompanying notes, Rich helpfully elucidates on the nature of that interaction:

The term “Sleep Concert” can be a bit misleading, as it implies that this music is intended to help you sleep deeply. On the contrary, when you play Somnium at night, you may find that you sleep less deeply, and wake up more often. The idea is to let the music incorporate itself into your perceptual framework during the night, to create a sonic surround, an environment for unique states of consciousness. The music is aimed at the nebulous territory that exists in your mind when you are hovering between awake and asleep, when you are still aware of your environment, yet detached, when your half-sleeping mind wanders into the realm of hypnogogic images and dreamlike non-linearity. You might find that this music can act as a trigger for these flowing thoughts, and the activation of the environment around you can help you to skate around the edges of sleep, with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the room where you are sleeping. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: The Hafler Trio – Trilogy in Three Parts

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It’s impossible to speak of ‘contemporary epics’ without given especial mention to The Hafler Trio (the nom de guerre of Andrew McKenzie). While Kenneth Kirschner and Pat Maherr, discussed previously, usually restrict themselves to relatively modest durations, it’s rare for music by The Hafler Trio not to exceed an hour or more. This characteristic dates back as far as 1991, with the release of Kill the King, its single span lasting 73 minutes; the companion albums Mastery of Money (1992) and How to Reform Mankind (1994), ran to 75 and 78 minutes respectively. Those three albums form a trilogy, and large-scale trilogies have continued to be a feature of the Hafler Trio œuvre. Exactly As I Say (2004), Exactly As I Am (2005) and Exactly As I Do (2005), each double albums, together form a trilogy lasting almost 5½ hours. How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (2003) and sister work How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (Lengthwise) (2004) are each trilogies in their own right; together they too last nearly 5½ hours. Most recently, McKenzie’s occasional collaboration with Autechre has finally become a trilogy with the release in August of ae3o3 (which on its own has a duration of 3¾ hours); together with æ³o and h³æ (2003) and æo³ and ³hæ (2005), this trilogy is now the longest of all, stretching to a massive 5¾ hours. Even the albums not part of trilogies occupy long durations: Hljóðmynd (2000; 1 hour), Normally (2003; 2 hours), Where Are You? (2004; 1 hour) and Scissors Cut Arrow (2004; 1¾ hours). On all of these albums, individual tracks occupy a complete CD; faced with music on such a scale, it’s understandable why, quite apart from the multitudinous disjecta membra that red herringly encompass each release—not to mention the eternally bellicose attitude of McKenzie himself—The Hafler Trio can seem off-putting, unapproachable and daunting. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Indignant Senility – Blemished Breasts

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What makes Kenneth Kirschner’s “July 17, 2010” so significant—and, in my view, qualifies it as an ‘epic’—is the fact that its 2-hour duration is not subdivided into sections, or even particularly episodic (although its timbral qualities could be said to have a periodicity of roughly 20 minutes, but that’s just the way i hear it). This is what separates it from the plethora of large-scale albums that have been around for over 60 years, since the double album first came into existence. The prospect of an album lasting two hours or more is less problematic when its duration is broken down into individual songs of no more than a few minutes apiece; it’s still a lot to listen to, granted, but the time is compartmentalised, which does at least make things psychologically simpler. Of course, there will always be the concept album that seeks to be homogeneous, its constituent parts seamlessly working towards the creation of a larger whole, but the qualitative shifts en route—the movement from track to track, with their own internal structures—inevitably mean that the overarching narrative is partitioned, if not entirely broken. At the end of last year, in my summary of the best albums of 2010, one of the key things that impressed me about the winner—Chubby Wolf’s Ornitheology—was its large-scale epic structure; despite being merely a double album (and as such, shorter than many other such albums), it articulated itself in just two 40-minute tracks. The second ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to highlight is very similar to this, and arguably more impressive. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Kenneth Kirschner – July 17, 2010

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Imagine yourself in a situation where you’ve agreed to listen to a piece of music, but have no idea what it is. You get yourself comfortable, and shortly before the music starts, you’re informed that the piece will last three minutes. Now imagine that situation again, but this time you’re told the duration will be 30 minutes; and now a third time, what if you were told the piece was going to last three hours? Each of those scenarios elicits an entirely different psychological response, and this unbidden, preemptive reaction to the prospect of increasingly long durations has fascinated me for years. In all probability, three minutes wouldn’t make anyone bat an eyelid, whereas 30 minutes might well create a bit of tension, sending less focused minds swiftly out the door. But three hours, i imagine, would exceed most people’s tenacity, resulting in only a small collection of listeners prepared to confront something on such an epic scale. Despite the apparent trend in recent times of attention shifting towards short, individual tracks (an inevitable by-product of download culture), it’s encouraging to see composers continuing to allow their creativity to occupy large-scale sonic canvasses. Admittedly, a couple of years ago i pointedly remarked that, durationally speaking, “size isn’t everything”; of course it isn’t, but nonetheless, works occupying very long periods of time bring about a unique kind of listening experience, one that, at its best, makes the apparent demands on the listener pale beside the rewards it offers. i’m going to explore some of the more interesting recent ‘contemporary epics’ in the next few articles. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Cello Concerto No. 2 & Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)

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Today’s featured Alfred Schnittke concert was broadcast on 14 January 2001, and comprised two monumental pieces, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with Torleif Thedéen taking the solo role, and the dual-named Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4); Vassily Sinaisky directs the BBC Philharmonic. More than the others, this recording has suffered the effects of time (and, possibly, previous attempts at cleanup); there’s some crackle audible in the performances as well as the speech, and to add insult to injury, on the original recording (made on cassette) i neglected to use Dolby. So—despite my best efforts—my apologies for the sound quality, although the performances are so good that (for the most part) they transcend these problems.

Completed in 1990, Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is a work that dives into high lyricism at the outset, the cello’s opening gambit pitched towards the top of its compass, followed by an extensive meditation at the opposite end of the pitch spectrum, ushering in a loud declamatory statement from the orchestra; throughout this short opening movement (Moderato), the orchestra’s role is restricted to punctuating the ends of the cello’s lengthy meanderings. While it seems as though the soloist is going to stay ponderous for some time, the second movement (Allegro) abruptly establishes a tempo, and a fairly brisk one at that. The orchestra gets excited once again, but falls back almost as quickly as before; only the brass engage with the cello, although from a distance. Things continue in this vein for a while, until a more pointillistic idea initiates more assertion in the orchestra, seemingly placing their notes in the momentary gaps left by the soloist. They construct a curious waltz that fizzles immediately into a strangely sparse string chorale, in which a flexatone can just be heard. Aggression breaks out; it’s clear this is an orchestra profoundly irritated at being sidelined, and they seem to form packs that assault the soloist from all directions; for the cello’s part, its material, ever in flux, is thus instantly forgettable and yet projects itself as though each and every leaping note was agonisingly important. At the movement’s crashing final beat, one is left breathless and wondering where things stand; in this performance, there’s a significant pause at this point, which adds to the drama. Read more

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