Éliane Radigue – OCCAM XI

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For the second day of my Éliane Radigue long weekend, another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, and a particularly austere one. Composed in 2013, OCCAM XI is not simply for solo tuba, but solo microtonal tuba, specifically that of British tubist Robin Hayward. Not that that’s immediately obvious from the music, but then it’s not immediately obvious that a tuba is involved at all.

The work’s 13-minute span falls into three sections, the first of which contains a low F, articulated as a series of fragile fragments, air and vocal noise at the fringes, with both its pitch centre and its overtones undulating slightly, moving between different vowel shapes. The sound is a curious cross between throat singing and a kind of ancient reed instrument—almost, in fact, as though the instrument itself had found sentience and was attempting to speak; decidedly fascinating and unsettling. The second section, around the midpoint, shifts up a fifth and becomes more sustained, the tuba’s sounds much less differentiated but suggesting something more ritualistic, its strangely dogged persistence hinting at some higher purpose, as though casting a muffled incantation. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM RIVER XII (World Première)

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This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focussed epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Pierre Boulez – Piano Sonata No. 1

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“Vous êtes de la merde!”

i’m going to begin 2016 by looking back 70 years to the earliest acknowledged work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers, Pierre Boulez. For much of his life, but particularly as a young composer, Boulez’s perceived demeanour was, to put it mildly, bellicose, and his approach to composition was rapid—an interesting fact in light of his later concern (some might say obsession) with revising his scores. These two aspects, his demeanour and his approach, came to a violent head in 1946, in the Paris apartment of Boulez’s teacher and mentor René Leibowitz, when Boulez turned up with the completed score of his first Piano Sonata, a work that Leibowitz had presumed would be worked on slowly under his supervision. Leibowitz’s disgruntled reaction involved taking the score—at the time bearing his name as dedicatee—and beginning to write on it in red pen; Boulez’s explosive response, prior to storming out, consisted of the five words above. Read more

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Mix Tape #36 : Best Albums of 2015

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A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

In keeping with 5:4 tradition, here’s the new year Mix Tape showcasing music from each of my Best Albums of 2015. Three hours that demonstrate something of the sonic wonders that materialised last year. Enjoy! — and there are links to buy each of the albums featured in the last two days’ articles.

As usual, the mix tape can either be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2015 (Part 2)

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And here, bringing 2015 to a truly glorious end, is the conclusion of my countdown of the year’s best albums.

20 | James Newton Howard – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The Hunger Games film series has always been more about people and relationships than mere action, and James Newton Howard has consistently mirrored that in his scores. For the final film in the story, Howard gets archetypal, his score working as well as it does by juxtaposing crushingly imposing climaxes, reinforced by massive bass underpinning, with delicate folk music elements that (echoing the film) powerfully intimate the fragility of each and every one of the lives lost or threatened. Soaringly beautiful, solemn, spine-chilling, epic: a fitting accompaniment for the finale of one of cinema’s more emotionally involving franchises of recent years. [Amazon]

19 | Line Katcho – Pulsions

Québécoise composer Line Katcho speaks of using sound in her work “as kinetic matter, representing movement, forces and gestures”, and that’s abundantly clear throughout the five pieces on Pulsions. Their acousmatic nature is characterised by sounds that often fall just beyond one’s reach of recognition, Katcho whipping and spinning these sounds such that they become like gusts of wind manifested as solid objects. These are in turn sliced and fragmented into huge swirling clouds of sharp-edged matter, penetrating a variety of pitched materials, including deep bass drones and undulating sheets of consonance. Captivating and magical. [Kohlenstoff]

18 | Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

It’s three years since Holter’s superb second album Ekstasis (one of my Best Albums of 2012), an album that drew liberally on musical manners from an earlier time, which is also a defining feature of Have You In My Wilderness. One detects backward glances to the lyrical mindset of a figure like Bacharach, particularly in album opener ‘Feel You’ (which could almost be a 21st century render of a number from the ’60s), as well as permeating the jaunty melody of ‘Silhouette’ (until the wonderful point where it structurally breaks apart, unleashing a host of strings) and the lush accompaniment surrounding Holter in ‘Night Song’. But discrete points of influence are numerous and treated extremely fluidly, jazz and improv jostling with ballad and baroque pop elements. An air of wonder pervades throughout, as present in the palpable sense of joy that arises from Holter’s unexpected arrangements as it is in her lyrics. [Amazon]

17 | Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – In the Light of Air

“The latest CD from Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, In the Light of Air (out on Sono Luminus), develops further her distinctly elemental approach to music. Here, we’re immediately plunged into a primitive, even primeval place, filled with sounds at once inchoate yet at the same time stylised, producing a kind of heightened, ritualistic tone. Things move, yet for the longest time everything seems essentially static, held in check by its own oppressive weight; but, heralded by twangs on deep piano strings, Þorvaldsdóttir conjures up an atmosphere like folk music waking up, underpinned by some unstable drones and enriched by a movement away from gesture towards melody. […] In the Light of Air‘s conclusion bears similarities to its opening, yet is quite transformed, still decidedly weird but fundamentally more stable. Once again, with characteristic economy of means, Þorvaldsdóttir has created a stunningly immersive soundworld, the music of which conveys perceptible threads of narrative, yet which remains resolutely strange. This is perhaps her most primordial music to date, and it’s extremely impressive…” (reviewed in October) [Presto Classical]

16 | Man Without Country – Maximum Entropy

Surely contemporary pop’s most forward-looking and exhilarating synthpop duo, Man Without Country have somehow managed here to top their sublime 2012 debut, Foe. Sensitivity has always been pivotal to their music, a potent human presence balancing out the electronics, along with a leaning (it would be overdoing it to call it more than that) toward hints of the soundworld of their ’80s predecessors. Tracks like ‘Laws of Motion’, a delicious duet with White Sea’s Morgan Kibby, and ‘Virga’ demonstrate how subtle is their handling in this respect; one feels distant memories being triggered yet everything is fresh and new, making for a complex aural result. Ryan James’ vocals are as breathily ambiguous as ever, pushing the lyrics into a middleground of expressive potential, and the duo don’t seem to be anywhere near to using up their gift for lyrical ingenuity. [Amazon]

15 | C Duncan – Architect

You really don’t see music like this coming. Christopher Duncan’s approach to songwriting taps into a musical equivalent of summer holiday polaroids from the 1970s. Far from sounding merely like a retro throwback, his songs are homages to a kind of folk simplicity, inhabiting a dreamlike world of technicolor cheerfulness and harmony. One of the things that’s so remarkable about Duncan’s music is how it never feels remotely twee (despite how i’ve just described it), and also—considering how its composer wasn’t even born until 1989—how authentically it speaks. There’s a decidedly wistful punch being packed here, Duncan’s captivating voice emerging like a pristine artefact from the past that you’d thought was lost many, many years ago. Gorgeous. [FatCat Records] Read more

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Best Albums of 2015 (Part 1)

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Pausing only to reiterate once again how fundamentally definitive and provisional are all lists, here we go with my countdown of 2015’s best albums, starting with numbers 40 to 21. Part 2 tomorrow.

40 | Andrew Liles – Miscellany – Lussuoso (Electronics: 1990 to 2015)

The first of several epics on the list, Andrew Liles’ consistently unpredictable output was dominated in 2015 by this dazzling three-hour celebration of diverse electronic works dating back a quarter of a century. As the name implies, Miscellany is a veritable hotchpotch, one with a distinct leaning toward the more raw end of electronics. But this is merely the basis for a kaleidoscope of works encompassing radiophonic mayhem, intense beat-driven numbers overlaid with John Carpenter-esque basslines and/or Wendy Carlos-esque baroque twiddling, expansive ambient vistas and delicate, multi-layered bits of melodic tracery. It all makes for an entirely bewildering yet mesmerising experience. [self-released]

39 | Benge – Forms 4 – Moor Music

The latest in Ben Edwards’ ongoing ‘Forms’ series (begun in 2013) is this fine album, created using just a single synthesiser, the Yamaha VL1-m. The sense of evocation here, mingled with elements of nostalgia and retro sensibilities, is strong, conjuring up a soundworld that’s abstract and elemental yet drenched with connotations and allusions. And on top of all that it’s really very beautiful. [self-released – free download]

38 | Kate Havnevik – &i

Punchy, imaginative pop that builds directly upon the foundations set out on her 2011 album YOU. Smooth electronica is still the music’s most prevalent quality, but Havnevik keeps it informed with gruff basslines and itchy rhythmic diversions. Her voice is as gorgeous and indeed gymnastic as ever, turning endless cartwheels and somersaults which both reinforce the emotive core and embody the anthemic frivolity of her exquisite songs. [self-released]

37 | IAMX – Metanoia

The product of a runaway success crowdfunding venture, Metanoia finds Chris Corner extending further the utterly unique IAMX sound. His songs have always inhabited the widest of extremes in order to capture faithfully life’s emotional highs and lows, embracing grit and grime as well as the most ecstatic heights of elation (that voice!), and this album is no exception. Song titles like ‘No Maker Made Me’, ‘Say Hello Melancholia’ and ‘Oh Cruel Darkness Embrace Me’ are simultaneously brave—potentially suggesting a rather off-putting emo sensibility at work—and profoundly honest; yet the beat goes on, and while there’s more than an element of danse macabre permeating these songs, the restlessness of their rhythms keeps them from becoming self-indulgent. [self-released]

36 | Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 3

Xerrox Vol. 3 inhabits a very personal environment, founded upon broad washes of soft ambience, overlaid with bursts of electronic babble and semi-arbitrary burblings that more-or-less coalesce into melodic shapes. The slow, sedate manner of the first two Xerrox albums often suggested the solemnity of a ceremony, but Nicolai keeps things lighter on this occasion: materials are thinly-layered and clearly demarcated, and the general tone is one of buoyancy and lift, each track practically floating on its own thermal currents […] Avoiding the tendencies so many ambient composers make when attempting to tap into the idea of outer space, Xerrox Vol. 3 instead offers something that manages to evoke immensity and things unknowable from the perspective of a lone, small individual, at once infinite and intimate.” (reviewed in June) [Raster-Noton]

35 | East India Youth – Culture of Volume

William Doyle’s second album is a little hard to pin down. “The end result is not what was in mind” he sings, and it’s tempting to hear that as a descriptor for Culture of Volume itself. At its heart is a light-footed pop sensibility—Doyle is an irresistible melody-maker—yet this sits within a context of convoluted structures that often feel like miniature operas, their drawn-out dramas telescoped into four-to-six minute time spans. Whether expressed over an unstoppable pulse or through long-form lyrical lines (as in album highlight ‘Carousel’), they make Culture of Volume one of the year’s most beguilingly off-kilter pop albums. [XL] Read more

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