Jennifer Walshe – A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

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There are times, believe it or not dear reader, when i honestly wonder if i’m starting to get a little bit jaded. Listening can feel like a chore, and the endless parade of the novelty and the newfangled can blur into a torrent of ‘musica generica’ that becomes (at best) boring and (at worst) suffocating. Enter Jennifer Walshe. If there’s one artist whose work is always guaranteed to beguile, intrigue and fascinate, it’s Walshe. Above all, she is endlessly refreshing, presenting unexpected ideas in unexpected ways that are often as hilarious to experience as they are engrossing and confusing.

To say her latest release is no exception is to put it very mildly indeed. It’s essentially a collision between acoustic, in the form of Walshe’s voice, and electronic, in the form of machine learning duo Dadabots. The latter set to work training their neural network on recordings of Walshe singing through centuries’ worth of music history. The first remarkable product of this unique collaboration is A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance, 40 minutes of sonic disjecta membra that Douglas Adams might have described as being almost, but not quite, entirely unlike vocal music.

Anyone with a passing understanding of machine learning from the perspective of music will perhaps know what to expect here. Machine? – check; learning? – hmm, not so much. The extent to which it’s obvious in these 17 tracks that their origins lie in Jennifer Walshe’s vocal cords varies extremely widely. Not that that matters, of course; what’s more important here isn’t the fidelity of the process but the evolution of the process, the ongoing strenuous effort being made to attempt to parse, understand and reproduce – and then beholding the startlingly marvellous results in all of their discombobulating ineptitude. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Riot Ensemble, Illuminate, Electric Spring, Borealis, Philharmonia Orchestra, Louth Contemporary Music Society

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Lots of ensembles and festivals have been making concert announcements recently, so here’s a whistle-stop tour through some of the more interesting on the horizon.

Most imminent, this coming Friday (14th), is Riot Ensemble at King’s Place in London. They’ll be kicking off their new concert series ReNew with a trio of works: Liza Lim‘s Extinction events and dawn chorus (which has just been released on CD; review to come soon), Laurence Osborn‘s CTRL and Like a memory of birds (ii) by Riot conductor Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

Maybe it’s just me but i can’t think of many better ways to spend Valentine’s Day. Full details here.

Also this week, also in London, is the latest Illuminate concert, which this time finds them at the Royal College of Music. The programme once again consists of an interesting blend of new and not-so-new, including Jennifer Higdon‘s Dark Wood and Kaija Saariaho‘s Mirrors alongside Amy Beach‘s Pastorale for Woodwind Quintet and Henriëtte BosmansString Quartet.

The concert starts at 3pm and there’s a pre-concert chinwag an hour beforehand with Illuminate’s Angela Slater and the RCM’s Natasha Loges; both events are FREE, but tickets are required: you can get them here (talk) and here (concert).

Next week sees the return of the Electric Spring festival in Huddersfield. Once again spread over five days from Wednesday to Sunday, this year’s concerts will feature five new works for organ and electronics performed by Lauren Redhead & Alistair Zaldua, a large-scale workout for Huddersfield’s equally large-scale HISS system from Louise Rossiter, an evening of who-knows-what from Weston Olencki and what will surely be a typically marvellous son et lumière display from Leafcutter John. There’ll also be a couple of installations running throughout by Simon Whetham (in the Richard Steinitz Building’s vast Atrium space) and Jackson Mouldycliff, plus a workshop with Pam Hulme and the usual Creative Coding Lab Symposium and geekalicious Modular Meets session on Sunday afternoon.

As ever, all events are FREE; full details here.

Beyond these shores, the programme for this year’s Borealis festival in Bergen has been announced. Borealis remains one of the most adventurous new music festivals i’ve ever attended, and this year is no exception. Trying to single out highlights is ridiculous considering pretty much everything is likely to be one, but especially interesting will be the world première of SOLD (a dog and pony show) – a new performance piece from chameleon-like vocalist Stine Janvin; assorted works by George Lewis performed by the wonderful Norwegian Naval Forces Band at the Natural History Museum; Ecstatic Material, a multimedia work from Beatrice Dillon & Keith Harrison that sounds like it will be not only sonically interesting but also downright sticky; Knut Vaage‘s new electroacoustic piece Hybrid spetakkel being premièred by BIT20 Ensemble; a three-way concert featuring John Chantler, Okkyung Lee & Nina Pixel; and a four-part evening of music celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings featuring the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

It all promises to be outrageously fascinating and/or fascinatingly outrageous – the festival runs from 4 to 8 March, and full details can be found here.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s next set of Music of Today concerts (curated by Unsuk Chin) is looking good. Next month there’ll be the chance to hear music by Xenakis and Aribert Reimann on 5 March (featuring pianist Nic Hodges), and two weeks later works by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Helena Tulve. On 14 May, percussionist Colin Currie will be giving the first performance of Luke Bedford‘s latest piece alongside music by Philippe Hurel, while the following week’s concert features three world premières from Joel Järventausta, Jocelyn Campbell and Hollie Harding.

All four concerts are FREE; the 19th March concert (Salonen and Tulve) is at the Purcell Room and needs a pre-booked ticket, but for all of the rest, at the Royal Festival Hall, you can just turn up; full details here.

Slightly further ahead is Louth Contemporary Music Society‘s annual two-day shindig, which this year is titled ‘The Gathering’. It gets its name from a string quartet by Christos Hatzis, which will be performed by the Esposito Quartet. There’ll also be new works from Leo Brouwer, Pascale Criton and Gloria Coates, and the festival will close with one of Estonia’s finest choirs, Vox Clamantis, presenting works by Helena Tulve, Kevin Volans, Siobhán Cleary and (surprise, surprise) Arvo Pärt.

‘The Gathering’ runs from 19 to 20 June in Dundalk on the east coast of Ireland; full details can be found here, and impressively cheap early bird tickets are available now.

Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 2)

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As i mentioned previously, allusions to or evocations of nature were few and far between at this year’s Dark Music Days, indicating the strength and diversity of Iceland’s more searching, abstract approach to composition.

This seemed to be precisely the point of Sigurður Árni Jónsson’s Illusion of Explanatory Depth, premièred by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason as part of ‘Yrkja’, an annual programme to support up-and-coming composers. More than most works I heard at this year’s festival, the piece was clearly all ‘about’ sound itself, articulated via an involving conversation between sections of the orchestra. It was exceptionally dynamic, fluctuating between overblown bursts of pseudo-romantic passion – principally heard in a short, recurring motif – and extended sequences of exploratory convolution. Over time, the orchestra never idling for a second, it created the distinct sense of an intense inner turmoil, governed by spontaneity – yet this sense was regularly challenged by that uncanny recurring motif. A fascinating piece. The same couldn’t be said for the other ‘Yrkja’ work, Lo and Behold by Eygló Höskuldsdóttir Viborg. Nominally taking inspiration from Werner Herzog, the piece was a pure slice of the kind of saccharine fare one is forced to endure throughout pretty much any nature documentary these days. It’s hard to find musical aspirations such as these admirable, particularly when they’re so overtly manipulative; it was like being continually poked: “be uplifted, be amazed, be joyful, be happy”. NO. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Interlude)

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As an interlude to my coverage of the 2020 Dark Music Days, I have to say something about two artworks that weren’t part of the festival but which contributed significantly to my time in Reykjavík.

First is CAT 192, the product of a collaboration in 2013 by composer Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson and conductor Ilan Volkov. It’s not so much music as a piece of performance art for the main hall, Eldborg, within the city’s principal concert venue Harpa. The work literally ‘plays’ the hall, utilising the array of doors and chambers, the shutters, blinds and curtains, as well as the lights and part of the stage canopy.

It was decidedly uncanny. Being inside Eldborg when it’s essentially empty (at the performance I attended there were maybe around 40 people) was somewhat unnerving, mainly due to the hall’s deeply glowering red walls which, now dimly lit in an otherwise very dark space, gave off the air of some kind of malevolent presence. This heightened the experience of witnessing the hall’s ‘limbs’ moving seemingly of their own accord. It was as if an artificial intelligence, or even the beginnings of some kind of self-willed sentience, had spontaneously occurred at Harpa, which was now awake and flexing its muscles for the first time. Though in some ways rather primitive – it was, after all, limited to the range of motions the hall can make – CAT 192 was nonetheless an effective and amusing ballet for the building, highlighting also the tones, rhythms and other sonic throbs, thrums and patterns that emerged from its various movements, which were all the more striking when it wasn’t immediately possible to tell what or where the sounds were coming from. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 1)

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It no doubt goes without saying that Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival is primarily named for the fact that it takes place in January, when the amount of daylight the country receives is minimal. In a less literal sense, though, musically speaking there’s a lot to be said for listening in the dark. I don’t just mean the obvious, actually sitting in darkness – the way that last year’s Dark Music Days got up and running – but I’m also thinking of the relationship we have with music, our expectations and considerations of it prior to, and during, the act of listening. Personally, I increasingly find that knowing less beforehand, going into a concert ‘cold’ without consulting programme notes and the like until afterwards, is a valuable, even vital, way to approach new music. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam Delta XV (UK Première)

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To conclude my Éliane Radigue birthday weekend, i’m returning to a work in the Occam series that i’ve briefly written about previously, Occam Delta XV. The piece dates from 2018 and results from a collaboration between Radigue and Quatuor Bozzini. In a way that i hope isn’t too fanciful, the overall structure of the piece is a kind of macrocosm for the moment-by-moment liminality that i’ve been discussing in these articles, and which continually serves to make the Occam works teeter between certainty and vagueness, volatility and calm.

Although the first section of the piece exhibits exactly this same kind of unstable stability, the rich opening chord is delicately robust (i previously described it as “simultaneously final yet provisional”), as if we were hearing a drawn-out resolution – like a squeezebox impossibly moving in only one direction – the composition seemingly ending as soon as it’s begun. But this is Éliane Radigue, and in due course the integrity of this chord becomes slowly undermined and begins to unravel. It’s a process that starts with small-scale, barely noticeable judders, but beyond that it isn’t easy to describe exactly how it happens. It’s rather like the individual pitches gradually migrating tiny distances away from their centres, thereby imperceptibly changing the language of the chord, its inner emphases and, ultimately, its very nature. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam XXI

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The second of the three works i’m exploring in this Éliane Radigue birthday long weekend is also the most austere. Not only is Occam XXI for a single instrument, violin, but also in contrast to perhaps the majority of the Occam series, the harmonic language of the piece is radically pared back, focusing exclusively on just two pitches, G and D. Yet i can’t help feeling that that almost ascetic level of restriction ends up providing perhaps the clearest possible demonstration of the liminality displayed in all of Radigue’s Occam works, always teetering back and forth between opposing senses of stability and instability, fluidity and stasis.

In Occam XXI there’s a similar demonstration of this to that found at the start of Occam River XV. A single pitch G hovers for around two minutes all by itself, and during that time, in addition to wavering and trembling there’s even hints of an inner rhythm, as if we were somehow becoming able to hear the individual pulses – all 392 of them, each second! – that create this pitch. i say 392, but perhaps i mean 784, as even at this stage it’s somewhat unclear which octave the G inhabits, and/or whether we’re glimpsing an upper overtone of a lower pitch. Ambiguity from the outset. Ds and additional Gs emerge in similarly inscrutable fashion, along the way causing strange, brief lowercase pulsings later on that i’ve never been able to decide whether or not are deliberate (or even partly imaginary). But in terms of details, there’s not much more one can say – as i mentioned before, Occam XXI is primarily a kind of archetype vehicle for the essence of Radigue’s critical forms of quasi- (or should that be pseudo-?) equilibrium. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam River XV (World Première)

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A composer whose work i return to more often than most – and find the experience completely different every time i do – is Éliane Radigue. Today is the grande dame’s 88th birthday – joyeux anniversaire! – so, as i did a few years ago, i’m going to devote another long weekend to her music, focusing on the ever-expanding series of works bearing the name Occam. If there’s one thing that could be said to typify Radigue’s Occam series it’s liminality, the creation of a music that is located at a critical point between tension and resolution, movement and rest. One of the most fascinating aspects of this is the way it thereby sounds both endless, broadening our listening horizons to a limitless scope, and infinitesimal, making us focus on the most minute shifts and changes in its quasi-stasis, a classic example of a steady state.

Occam River XV dates from 2017, the product of a collaboration between Radigue, violinist Angharad Davies and double bassist Dominic Lash. That liminality i spoke of is apparent even from the work’s tentative opening moments. A solitary D hangs in the space for nearly a full minute, but not for one second does that note sit still. It wavers and trembles, gently surges and recedes, starting to sound more and more like an electronic tone that’s being tweaked and filtered, in the process altering its timbre and hinting at varying quantities of overtones. Yet it’s still essentially just a D. Whether or not the note is stable depends on your perception, but i’ll suggest the only answer is both, stable and unstable simultaneously. Read more

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Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir – Vernacular; Siggi String Quartet – South of the Circle; Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Concurrence

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In just over a week’s time Iceland’s premier new music festival, the Dark Music Days, will be up and running again, and once again i’ll be heading off to Reykjavík to immerse myself in some of the goings-on. Details about the festival can be found here, and for any UK dwellers who fancy a spontaneous jaunt over to Iceland, there are some fantastically cheap deals to be had from Gatwick and Bristol (especially, with Bristol, if you travel on a Wednesday or Sunday), and some equally great deals to be found on AirBnB. As an upbeat to the festival, it’s a good time to touch on a number of releases that came out last year on the Sono Luminus label, showcasing some of the more exciting examples of Icelandic contemporary music-making. Read more

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An End to Sharing, or Home Taping Is (Still) Killing Music

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From its inception, one of the key features of 5:4 has been my desire to explore music that is not widely heard or available or understood. That exploration has in part taken the form of plundering my extensive archive of off-air radio recordings, an archive that i began while i was still at school (originally on cassette, being part of the generation the BPI decided were ‘killing music‘), and which continues to expand all the time. In the dozen years since, that archive has become, if not the backbone of the blog, then at least a primary source for the 5:4 musical journey, shaping both the broad scope and the individual details of my explorations. Unfortunately, it seems that this aspect of the blog needs to come to an end.

A couple of days ago, i received an email from ‘BBC IP Litigation’ asking me to remove an off-air recording i was sharing on 5:4, of a work premièred during the 2016 Proms. Obviously, i complied with this request immediately. It’s by no means the first time i’ve removed a recording from the blog. Usually, i’ve done this when a professional recording becomes available, as it’s not my intention to impinge on sales, particularly as many if not most labels devoted to contemporary music struggle to make ends meet. However, it’s the first time – in 5:4‘s entire 12-year lifespan – that the BBC has contacted me about this, and while they didn’t explicitly acknowledge the existence of any other recordings on the blog, they did request that i refrain from making recordings available in future. i wouldn’t want their polite request to escalate into something less palatable. So with immediate effect i’ve begun removing all the links to download the recordings i’ve shared on 5:4 over the years.

Of course, the written content of the blog is completely unaffected by this. Furthermore, sharing recordings in this way has never been the primary purpose or focus of 5:4, being just one aspect alongside my writing about concerts and festivals, new releases, as well as ongoing series like The Dialogues and Mixtapes. Nonetheless, from my perspective, this is not a minor change in the way i regard and write 5:4. Going forward, it will require a different approach taken when critiquing newly-premièred compositions – presumably linking instead to the BBC’s own streaming service, BBC Sounds – but more significantly it will make my regular explorations of older works – which aren’t available to buy or stream anywhere – such as those featured in my annual Lent Series or the recent series of articles at the start of winter, impossible to continue in the same form as previously.

Ultimately, i hope that the main attraction of 5:4 is my writing, and that this matters more than simply being a repository for audio downloads. That being said, i’ve always believed my writing is at its most effective and meaningful when presented hand-in-hand with the ability to hear the music being discussed. However, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there’s a subset of my audience (hopefully, a small one) who comes to the blog solely for the downloads and couldn’t be less interested in my words about the music.

i realise i’ve not intimated thus far how i actually feel about this. As matters of a legal persuasion are all about what’s black and what’s white, i’m not sure feelings come into it, but strictly between you, me and the blogosphere, i’m quite heartbroken.

i know there will be a a lot of you – not least many of the composers and performers i’ve written about over the years – who will be as depressed about this as i am (i’ve already received my first email from one such composer; i expect more). i can only hope that you understand the situation and why i’ve come to the conclusion that 5:4 needs to change somewhat. The blog will of course continue – onwards and upwards and all that – but i do need to reflect on the whole way i go about writing about new music, and my future goals and aspirations for 5:4. This may need a little time to work out, so i hope you’ll bear with me.

Mixtape #57 : Best Albums of 2019

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Happy New Year!

i want to start this year by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all of you who have followed and supported 5:4 in the last year, particularly my delectable band of Patrons. Hot on the heels of my Best Albums of 2019 list, i’m beginning 2020 with the usual mixtape comprising selections from each of those 40 albums. It rather nicely encapsulates another year of breathtaking musical imagination and ingenuity, exploring a typically eclectic range of styles, attitudes and aesthetics.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with the start time for each track in the mix; links to obtain the music can be found in the previous two days’ articles. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed. Read more

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Best Albums of 2019 (Part 2)

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Here they are, then, the best of the best albums that have brought untold levels of wonderment into my ears and mind throughout this year. i cannot recommend them highly enough – this is music at its most literally essential.

Read more

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Best Albums of 2019 (Part 1)

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With only a couple of days left until 2019 comes to an end, it’s that time once again to take stock and celebrate the great and the good albums that have been tickling my eardrums in the most beguiling way this year. Just before that, though, it’s perhaps worth stating the rules that determine whether or not something is eligible to appear in this list:

  1. No reissues, re-recordings (including live concert recordings) or releases that are not widely available can be featured on the list – though limited editions are generally allowed.
  2. A composer, artist, performer, ensemble or group may only appear once on the list in the same capacity (i.e. a soloist can appear more than once if also performing as part of a group or ensemble; a composer can appear more than once if featured on, for example, a portrait disc and a compilation).
  3. The definition of an ‘album’ is determined not primarily by its duration but the nature of its content. However, in general, to qualify for the list a release should be of at least 20 minutes’ duration.
  4. No recordings or arrangements of music composed prior to the 20th Century can be featured on the list – unless there’s a very good reason for doing so.

Right, now that that’s out of the way, here’s the first part of my round-up of the 40 Best Albums of 2019; each and every one of them in their own unique way will make your life a bit better – and give your ears one hell of a thrill.
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Lauri Jõeleht – Cantus angelorum

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Happy Christmas to you all!

To conclude my week-long sojourn into the start of winter, i’m returning to the Estonian trio Una Corda – comprising harp, harpsichord and kannel – for a performance of a piece that i think is perfect for the festive season and especially Christmas Day itself: Cantus angelorum by Lauri Jõeleht. The title, which translates as ‘song of the angels’, directly relates to the choice of these instruments, as Jõeleht explains in his brief programme note:

A group of theologians and philosophers have contemplated the nature of sound produced by various musical instruments and have concluded that the sound of plucked string instruments might be the closest to those that one hears in the heavenly spheres.

The music primarily consists of an interplay between melodic and chordal ideas – the former highly conversational, driving the piece on; the latter acting as gathering points when the dialogue pauses and the trio is more rhythmically united. However, a sense of unity actually persists throughout everything that happens; the nature of the contrapuntal sections is such that it’s as if the three players were finishing each other’s sentences, or passing a train of thought between themselves, conveying the impression that they’re all essentially communicating the same thing. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam XVII

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For the penultimate work in my week-long journey into winter, i’m again turning away from festive music to a piece that continues my preoccupation with the season’s prevailing darkness. Not that the work in question, Éliane Radigue‘s Occam XVII for double bass, has darkness as its theme; her Occam series is primarily associated with water-related imagery (in part literally, the performers being asked to keep images of specific watercourses in mind while playing). But every time i listen to this piece i’m drawn into a soundworld that i think of as a myriad shades of black, having the same kind of inscrutability and, despite first appearances, endlessly shifting surface details (both real and imaginary) of the marvellous black paintings by Ad Reinhardt.

With all of Radigue’s Occam works it’s arguably best just to listen to them rather than read a lot about them – trying to capture something of their inner magic is nigh impossible anyway – so i’ll keep this brief. Occam XVII essentially charts a slow transition from low A to bottom C# on the double bass, but that’s not remotely what the piece is ‘about’ or what’s most interesting about it. The work begins, and is continuously filled, with a plethora of overtones and harmonics ever in flux. Sometimes they suggest the harmonic series, projecting prominent fifths or thirds, but more often they act not as a reinforcement of the fundamental but a kind of challenging colouration of it. Sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they judder, but always they’re in motion, each up- or down-bow seeming either to change entirely or at least subtly alter the agglomeration of pitches magically emerging from the strings. It gives the impression that the instrument is breathing, each inhalation and exhalation a continuation of the same impulse toward deep, dark meditation. Read more

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Karen Tanaka – Sleep Deeply

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While i can take or leave most Christmas music, i have a real soft spot for lullaby works setting texts that either allude to or directly address the sleeping infant Jesus. It’s a nice counterpoint to the shouty-shouty zeal that permeates a great deal of festive musical fare, but more importantly it invites composers to explore the most intimate, dare i say ‘snuggly’ side of their musical language. So the next piece in my week-long journey into winter is a lullaby composed last year by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka. Though not actually a Christmas carol at all, to my mind it fits perfectly in this context.

Setting words by Irish musician Michael McGlynn, Tanaka approaches the text in two ways. The verses take the form of personal reflections about the nature of Christ and the broader spiritual relationship the writer has – from birth to death – with what the figure of Christ represents. Consequently, these verses convey a nice mixture of introspection, contemplation and wonder, Tanaka’s melody having a simple, folk-like quality, surrounded by warm, balmy harmonies. The refrain is treated much more intimately, the words here becoming a lullaby sung to oneself, liltingly and soothingly inviting an immersive sleep in an atmosphere of safety and security. Throughout Sleep Deeply, a female soloist takes precedence in the verses with the accompaniment kept light, occasionally doubling or reiterating key phrases. But the ending is really special, Tanaka allowing the choir to elaborate just a little bit, finally repeating the word “softly” again and again as if savouring it on the lips and tongue, lingering over its sound and its meaning. And the unresolved final chord – which nonetheless feels final – couldn’t be more right. Read more

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Maria Kõrvits – Darkness and Deeper Dark (World Première)

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This morning (at 4:19am to be precise) saw the winter solstice, making this the northern hemisphere’s shortest day and the start of not only the season of winter but also a host of traditional festive periods. Being the day when we’re dominated most by night, it’s an ideal moment to spend time with the latest work by Maria Kõrvits, Darkness and Deeper Dark. To an extent, it continues a preoccupation from Kõrvits’ previous work Öö [Night], premièred earlier this year at the World Music Days, though where that piece was concerned with obscuring the distinction between melody and embellishment, her new work inhabits a place where any notion of such things is more or less lost entirely.

Composed for strings, a great deal of the piece behaves in essence like a noise study. Indeed, for the first couple of minutes pretty much all we hear is pure friction, creating a thick band of noise within which faint traces of individual pitches can just about be discerned. A few pitches protrude a little more after this, but they become lost in what by now is becoming a densely cluttered ball of seething movement: activity absolutely everywhere, details nowhere to be heard. Only when it dies back to a whisper does something a little more tangible begin to emerge, though in the form of tremulous surges like gangs of angry hornets, creating buzz-clusters around various possible pitch centres that, as a result, are all massively smudged. Read more

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Howard Skempton – The Wells Service

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The pair of canticles used in a traditional Anglican choral evensong service effectively straddle the Christmas story, the Magnificat pointing towards it, the Nunc dimittis referring back to it. Their use in this service means that there must be literally thousands of settings of them, though, no doubt fuelled by the overtly conservative tone endemic to both that service in particular, and to contemporary religious music in general, the number of these setttings that are interesting, imaginative and individual is significantly smaller, the exception rather than the rule. One such exception is Howard Skempton‘s The Wells Service, composed in 2011.

i think it’s fair to say that Skempton’s approach to the texts is, in the best sense, something of an acquired taste. Not because it’s radical or wilful or arch or just weird, but because – as with so much of his output – it manages to combine great simplicity with a subtle kind of aloof calculation that makes it sound disarmingly strange. The Mag and Nunc are essentially two parts of a single, singular expressive act, grounded in a basic rhythmic language of crotchets and minims that Skempton uses to give the phrases a gentle elasticity. It’s in the way these phrases progress that the strangeness is most apparent. Skempton doesn’t particularly treat each canticle as a broad sweeping narrative but rather as a sequence of individual sentences that become connected through the unity of their language. It’s almost entirely syllabic, no repetitions or melismas, giving the canticles something of the air of chant; they don’t so much sound sung as recited. Read more

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Age Veeroos – Külmking (World Première)

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It’s nice, sometimes, when a composition isn’t concerned with layers of complexity and subtext, but instead focuses on a single idea. So as the days grow increasingly cold (here in the UK, at least), it seems an ideal time to explore one of Age Veeroos‘ latest works, the title of which, Külmking, translates as “chills”. It was written for one of my favourite ensembles, Una Corda, an Estonian trio comprising harp (Liis Viira), harpsichord (Ene Nael) and kannel (Kristi Mühling). Playing together, these instruments make for a heady, even an opulent combination, but in Külmking they create an altogether different musical environment.

In essence, it’s an onomatopoeic music, manifesting both the source and the effect of the chills. This is primarily articulated in two highly contrasting kinds of material: clear, repeating notes and vague chords that more often than not are packed into tight, reverberant clusters. Veeroos uses these materials to generate considerable tension and drama. The former often bring about a kind of pressurised poise, the repeating notes not so much progressing the narrative as doing the opposite, staying put, actively fearful of pushing ahead. The latter provide release but not relief, increasingly wild bursts of discharged noise, the chords – regardless which instrument they’re on – detonating like small cluster bombs. Read more

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Tõnis Kaumann – Ave maris stella (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières, Thematic series | Leave a comment

During my week-long journey into winter, i’ll be veering back and forth between sacred and secular music. When i first heard Tõnis Kaumann‘s setting of the Marian hymn Ave maris stella at the World Music Days earlier this year, i have to admit it didn’t make a huge impression on me. Then, i regarded it as over-simplistic, a bit like an exercise, but i’ve since spent quite a bit more time with the piece and have come to appreciate it a great deal more. Kaumann uses two melodies, the hymn’s original plainsong and, more often, another melismatic melody that may or may not be based on a different bit of plainsong (if it is, i’ve not yet been able to find it in my Liber Usualis), mirroring its scalic contour.

The structure of the work uses the stanzas of the text as the basis for a sequence of shifting permutations of a small number of parameters:

  1. tonic: G or D;
  2. melody: plainsong or melisma;
  3. voices: solo voice, women/men, tutti;
  4. accompaniment: single-note drone, perfect fifth drone (both primarily sung by the men), or unaccompanied.

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