Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 2)

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Being the host nation, music from Norway was especially well-represented at this year’s Nordic Music Days in Bodø. Harnessing the large and impressive organ of Bodø Cathedral, Trond Kverno‘s Triptychon 2 was one of the fieriest things i heard at the festival. We tend to think of toccatas as fast-flowing, though the ones that appeared here were often crushingly strong, to the point that it sounded as if their notes were audibly fusing into dense clusters. Its more ruminative middle movement only made the powerful outer sections sound more assertive, the final movement managing to turn a pedal point into an aggressive surge before letting high notes hang while the pedals became pushy in the depths. And just when it seemed the work couldn’t get any more forceful, organist Gro Bergrabb’s rendition of the final climax was so crashing it practically threatened the integrity of the building. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 1)

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Founded in 1888, the annual Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest contemporary music festivals in the world. It’s a peripatetic festival, moving from place to place each year, and for 2019 – surprisingly, for the first time – it moved north of the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø (‘boo-duh’) in the north of Norway. As its name suggests, the festival is an opportunity for composers and performers from throughout the Nordic region to meet, collaborate and showcase to the wider world the range and diversity of their music-making.

The country that unfortunately came off worst this year – with disappointing consistency – was Denmark. Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard took no fewer than 50 triangles for his Triangular Mass – and then gave them little more than a continual, barely-changing tremolando for ten minutes. That was boring enough, but the fact that the work was conceived to be performable by any group of people, irrespective of musical training, only made such basic material seem not merely deficient but patronising; non-musicians are capable of a great deal more than just that. Loïc Destremau‘s string quartet Spoken Music had more going for it, but it was one of a number of pieces at NMD 2019 that became so interested in either technical or extra-musical elements that their actual musical interest was greatly reduced. In this case, while Destremau’s exploration of how speech can modulate conventionally-performed materials by the quartet was an interesting idea, the actual resulting music was extremely dull. Read more

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Fermata

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This morning i’m setting off for the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø in the north of Norway, where i’ll be for the rest of the week at this year’s Nordic Music Days. Words to come about that early next week (once i’ve thawed out), after which a few days later i’ll be heading not-so-far north to catch a few days of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

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i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

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David Briggs – Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes (World Première)

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One of the minor passions of my listening life, which i rarely write about here, is organ music. It doesn’t come up very often in the world of contemporary music, but it did a couple of months back in the gala recital at this year’s OrganFest at Llandaff Cathedral. Performed by David Briggs, on the cathedral’s newly-installed instrument, the entire second half of the concert was given over to a brand new symphony completely improvised by Briggs, grandly titled Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes. i’ve been fortunate enough to experience a number of Briggs’ live performances, and i’ve never heard any organist who has wowed me more – both his abilities at improvisation as well as his astonishingly effective transcriptions of well-known works of orchestral music (especially his Mahler symphony arrangements). The use of French in the title of this new improvised symphony connects the work to the 20th century French organ school tradition, though due to its three movement structure, and the nature of those movements, it resembles less the suite-like symphonies by the likes of Widor or Louis Vierne, being more closely-related to those of Marcel Dupré. Read more

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 5; Stefan Fraunberger – Quellgeister #3 Bussd

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i’ve been spending time lately with new releases from two composers towards whose work i’ve hitherto felt almost universally positive. There’s something a little nerve-racking about this, inducing anxiety – and, to an extent, incredulity – that the unfamiliar new will be able to live up to the marvellous old. That’s especially true in the case of Jakob Ullmann, for while i’ve been fascinated and engrossed in all of the discs of his music steadily put out by the ever-dependable Edition RZ label – in addition to occasional (but too few) performances of his work – i’ve nonetheless always found myself wondering what’s left to explore in Ullmann’s edge-of-audibility soundworld.

The latest disc of his music, Fremde Zeit Addendum 5, reveals that there’s actually quite a lot – though its nature is rather surprising. The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. As with the other solo works released by Edition RZ, the piano is situated in a vast space, becoming a microscopic presence within a seemingly infinite macroscopic universe. This bears strong similarities to the way the bassoon is perceived in Müntzers stern (one of my best albums of last year), though there’s much less sense here of the solo instrument causing the environment to resonate. Read more

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Radio recordings: methods and formats, past and future

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Since the inception of 5:4, nearly 12 years ago, whenever i’ve been writing about a particular composition and there’s no professional recording available, i’ve often shared a radio recording of the piece from my archive. i began making these recordings when i was still at school, and in the intervening years the method and format i’ve used have changed a lot. Originally, i recorded from analogue radio onto audio cassette – or, if the broadcast was longer than cassettes could cope with, onto videotape. Around 15 years ago, i switched from analogue to digital, recording first cable and then satellite broadcasts, which has been my approach ever since. i’ve never been entirely happy with this method, though, and at the start of the year i began to investigate whether it could be improved.

The way i’ve always archived these recordings is in FLAC format. For recordings made from an analogue broadcast onto an analogue medium, this makes sense, as it preserves the original recording without losing anything meaningful. But in the case of recordings made from digital broadcasts it doesn’t make sense, as the original broadcast is in a lossy format (AAC) whereas FLAC is of course lossless. The reason i’ve always used FLAC is simply because i’ve recorded the broadcast in real-time as a WAV file, which i’ve then edited as necessary and then, in order not to reduce the sound quality further with additional lossy compression, converted to FLAC. But the inevitable upshot is that there’s a lot of redundancy in this method, with file sizes much bigger than they need to be. Read more

Chaya Czernowin – Once I blinked nothing was the same (UK Première)

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As i know i’ve remarked previously about compositions, size isn’t everything. Apropos: i’ve been spending time recently with a short work by Chaya Czernowin which, though it was premièred four years ago, only received its first UK performance last month. Once I blinked nothing was the same has a duration of little more than three minutes, but the enormity of what happens in that time span is considerable, hinted at in Czernowin’s enigmatic subtitle for the piece: “A large scale miniature for orchestra”. Read more

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Four aspects of Erkki-Sven Tüür: Spectrums

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Birthdays and anniversaries provide an excellent opportunity to stop and look back, and contemplate everything that’s happened along the path of time that leads to here and now. This week – on Wednesday, in fact – marked the 60th birthday of Estonia’s most unconventional and irrepressible composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür. i’ve been listening to the most recent CD of his music, Spectrums, and considering how this impressive cycle encapsulates different aspects of his musical personality. In some ways, the four parts of Spectrums, each of which involves the organ, are like snapshots – selfies, perhaps – of Tüür at different stages of his musical life. Together, they present a fascinating portrait of an ever-changing yet always consistent composer. Read more

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Centrala, Birmingham: Illuminate Women’s Music

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In Birmingham last Saturday i caught the latest concert in the current season by Illuminate Women’s Music, touring six UK towns between September and November. As the name implies, the purpose of Illuminate Women’s Music is to shine a light on women composers and performers, featuring a mixture of new repertoire and neglected works from the past. It’s an important, much-needed initiative, and it was heartening to see Birmingham’s Centrala struggling to contain the size of the audience. For Illuminate’s second season the focus is on music for soprano and/or strings, performed by an eponymous bespoke quartet alongside Canadian soloist Patricia Auchterlonie.

One general observation: while i know some strangely prefer their concerts historically homogeneous – i.e. preferring to keep ancient and modern separate – it worked well in this concert combining contemporary music with pieces from previous centuries. New music is arguably more diverse than it’s ever been, so stylistic gear-shifting has long been de rigueur for anyone attending contemporary music concerts. But in any case, a significant part of the point of Illuminate’s concerts is to help flesh out and expand the all-too-easily accepted narrative of music history, in which a great many significant people and compositions have ended up sidelined, forgotten or erased. Read more

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King’s Place, London: Theatre of Voices – Baltic Voices

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Personality and connection tend to go hand in hand. This is just as true for getting to know a person as it is for getting to know a piece of music: we’re drawn towards or pushed away according to the ways in which its personality – its qualities and characteristics, the way it behaves – is conveyed to us. I was reflecting on this during last Friday’s concert at King’s Place featuring Paul Hillier’s vocal group Theatre of Voices, performing a sequence of choral works from Estonia and Latvia (although titled ‘Baltic Voices’, the concert did not include anything from Lithuania; a work by Rytis Mažulis was dropped from the programme). We heard works by five composers, and it was particularly interesting to note the marked differences in their respective musical personalities – informed in part by their relationship to earlier forms of music – and the effect this had with regard to engaging with and feeling connected to the music.

A context for this was provided by the opening piece on the programme, The Bishop and the Pagan by Veljo Tormis. Detailing the exploits of an ill-fated English missionary’s pilgrimage to Finland in the 12th century, Tormis initially mirrors the age of the story by employing a musical language shaped by the melodic contours of chant and the perfect fifth-laden harmonic strictures of organum. But from the outset it’s clear that Tormis is not engaging in some kind of postmodern exercise in pastiche. If anything, these overt allusions to earlier music turn out to be a ruse, gradually becoming more and more strained and contorted, peppered with obsessive syllabic repetitions, brief garbled asides and startling chord clusters soaring overhead. The result came across not so much as a conflict of musical languages but as both a homage to and an expansion of an earlier idiom, conveying a personality that was both solemn and, here and there, quite tongue-in-cheek. It was easy to connect to music that sounded so personal. Read more

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Mixtape #56 : MCU

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Considering that, when i’m not doing something musical, i’m most often to be found in front of a movie, it’s perhaps surprising that none of my previous mixtapes have been devoted to film scores. Until now, that is. Over the summer, the Beloved and i have been working our way through all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So the latest 5:4 mixtape is a homage to and celebration of the MCU, which for my money is one of the most ambitious, fantastical and exhilarating experiences i’ve had in my cinema-going life. For this mix i’ve allowed myself just one – or, in a couple of cases, two (because they’re really short) – track from each film, moving through them in the order they were released.

i’m conscious of the fact that it might seem a little ironic to turn to the MCU in particular for a musical celebration like this. It is ironic: while some of these movies are among my absolute favourites, very few of their scores adequately live up to the range of imagination and invention that we witness on screen. As was explored in the video ‘The Marvel Symphonic Universe‘ on the excellent, now sadly-defunct YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting a few years ago, a great deal of the music composed for the MCU is bland, generic, superfluous and completely forgettable. Indeed, each time i’ve made the transition from big screen to loudspeakers after seeing each movie for the first time it’s usually proven to be, at the very least, something of a crestfalling experience. But then, that experience is more of a Hollywood problem in general rather than being peculiar to the MCU.

Regardless of all that, i contend that, if you’re prepared to pan for sonic gold, there’s still a lot to enjoy in the music from these movies, and more than a few surprises along the way. i really like the meditative innocence of Ramin Djawadi‘s score for the original Iron Man – when none of us had any clue as to the scale of story-telling that would ensue – which John Debney would subsequently coat in nu metal hooks and riffs for the first sequel (one of the best scores of the franchise). Alan Silvestri‘s theme for The Avengers is as memorable as it is stirringly effective, setting up one of the few really telling points of musical continuity in the series. While we’re talking about themes, Christophe Beck‘s and Michael Giaccino‘s approaches to Ant-Man and Spider-Man respectively are both lovely mélanges of noir, heist and caper, while Brian Tyler‘s setting-up of Thor: The Dark World perfectly captures the film’s mix of mythology and swagger. It was brave of Mark Mothersbaugh to surround this hitherto epic character with retro synths and stylings for Thor: Ragnarok, but it’s brilliantly suited to the gaudy shift in aesthetic, not that far removed from Tyler Bates‘ awe and wonder approach to the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, echoed by Christophe Beck in his Ant-Man and the Wasp music conjuring up the mysterious and gorgeously-rendered ‘Quantum Realm’. Though it was ludicrously over-hyped (much like the film itself), Ludwig Göransson‘s extension of the series’ soundworld to encompass African tropes in his score for Black Panther is refreshing. Most notable of all, though, is Henry Jackman‘s unique contribution to the MCU in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, channelling his inner Trent Reznor to create an unsettling score unlike any other in the series (all the more obvious in this mixtape), filled with unrelenting jabs of marvellously razor-sharp, edgy electronica. And while the accusations of a lack of memorable music have merit, there’s some potent lyrical writing to be found in the saga’s more intimate and anguished moments, particularly from Patrick Doyle in Thor and, above all, Alan Silvestri‘s moving emotional high points of tragedy and heartbreak in the colossal Avengers two-parter Infinity War and Endgame.

While technically the complete ‘Infinity Saga’ includes 23 films, for my purposes – due to its overwhelmingly cathartic point in the narrative, which makes a much more convincing point to close this first epic chapter of the MCU – i’ve made Endgame the conclusion of this mixtape. Though i’ve worked through the films in order, i haven’t sought to retain a clear sense of the saga’s ongoing narrative, nor have i necessarily selected tracks that are highly representative of their respective scores as a whole. This mix simply explores some of the most interesting musical episodes to be found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of which are happily at some remove from the conventions of Hollywood histrionics.

Over 45 hours of cinematic saga distilled to just 78 minutes of musical mayhem, malevolence and magic; here’s the tracklisting in full, including time positions and links to buy the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Proms 2019: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who took part in this year’s Proms première polls. As ever, there was a stark imbalance in the number of votes certain works received, but interestingly, whereas in previous years this tended to be focused on works performed earlier in the festival (since there was more time available to vote for them), this year more than ever there was a much more even spread throughout the season as a whole, including pieces premièred quite late. Not surprisingly, it was the better-known composers and/or the most substantial works that garnered the greatest number of votes, while the four short pieces commissioned to ‘respond’ to music by Bach received least interest of all – which arguably says something about how worthwhile it was for the BBC to continue to flog that particular horse.

Speaking of disinterest, it was one of those Bach-related works, Ailie Robertson‘s Chaconne, that received the biggest ‘Meh’ response overall, closely followed by Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Naiad, while at the opposite extreme, the work that proved most divisive was Tobias Broström‘s Nigredo – Dark Night of the Soul, with opinions strongly polarised. But away from the shrugs and the bickering, here are the main winners and losers of this year’s Proms, as voted for by you. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra – Orchestral Works

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i’ve written a lot about Estonian music on 5:4 in the last few years, but i’m conscious that i’ve given relatively little attention to the other two Baltic states. That’s more to do with a lack of opportunities than a lack of enthusiasm, but while i’m still relatively clueless about contemporary music from Latvia, i wanted to flag up an interesting disc of orchestral works that i received from some very nice people in Lithuania. Recorded by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Adrija Čepaitė, the disc features pieces by a trio of senior figures in Lithuanian music. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 2)

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A golden rule in cinema is “show, don’t tell”, reminding the director it’s invariably more subtle and effective to avoid directly stating the things you want the audience to consider and instead to incorporate them into the medium itself, in the process allowing for a more subtle, rich and wide-ranging interpretation of meaning. Following on from my considerations yesterday about the relationship between music and images, the latter of which had had a damaging effect on the former in some of the works performed at this year’s Ultima festival, i wonder whether an inverse of that rule would work well in music: “tell, don’t show” – tell us in sound the things you want to say, don’t put them up explicitly in front of us as words or images. To this end, the works that made the deepest and most profound impact during Ultima’s opening weekend were ones that sidestepped visual stimuli and engaged directly with the invisible and the intangible. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 1)

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When you listen to music what do you see? What does music look like, and what do images sound like? What’s the relationship between musical and visual stimuli? These questions became something of a recurring consideration during the three days of concerts i attended recently during the opening weekend of the 2019 Ultima festival in Oslo. To be more specific, these questions were caused by the prevalence of visual elements incorporated into many of the pieces being performed. While in some cases the music was enhanced, elsewhere it proved a great deal more problematic.

The most egregious example unfortunately came on the festival’s opening night, at a concert in the city’s grand Konserthus devoted to just a single piece, the world première of Lyden av Arktis (Sound of the Arctic) by Lasse Thoresen. Even before the Arctic Philharmonic began to play, issues were already raising themselves. Thoresen had provided not so much a programme note as an extensive blow-by-blow account of each and every detail of its highly programmatic narrative, inspired by and seeking to depict aspects of Arctic landscape, nature, experience and heritage. Quite apart from the fact that this is the worst possible form of programme note – effectively telling the listener (spoiler alert!) what they should be listening out for and how it should all be interpreted – the only meaningful way to have engaged properly with its tl;dr contents would have been to follow along with the text during the performance, which in the darkened hall would in any case have been impossible. Read more

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Proms 2019: Daniel Kidane – Woke (World Première)

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Perhaps there’ll come a time when it’s possible to mention the Last Night of the Proms without also mentioning, usually in the same sentence, the word ‘tradition’. This is not that time. Whatever you may think of its entrenched traditions, one of the Last Night’s better ones has been the tendency in recent years to commission a new work to get the party started. Unfortunately, the majority of the chosen composers have opted into a parallel tradition: composing something trivial, frivolous and forgettable, the musical equivalent of a party popper, all streamers and flashes and a short burst of hot air.

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Proms 2019: Bach Night

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Here we go again. Four of the last premières at the Proms were the product of the festival’s irresistible inclination not to allow composers to just write what they want to write but to force them to ‘respond’ to earlier music. Last year, the most prominent example of this was The Brandenburg Project, and this year they’ve sought to repeat the idea on a smaller scale. Bach Night, which took place last Wednesday, included the first performances of four pieces each of which was composed in response to one of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Performed by the period ensemble Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, all the pieces were around three minutes long, compelling the four composers – Nico Muhly, Stevie Wishart, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae – to create not so much responses as brief reactions.

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