Proms 2018: pre-première questions with David Bruce

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Continuing what i started last year, i’m again expanding my coverage of the works being premièred at this year’s Proms season by putting some pre-première questions to some of the featured composers, so as to provide some background and context for their music. David Bruce‘s new orchestral work Sidechaining receives its world première at this evening’s Prom, so here are his answers to my questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to David for his responses. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: The Strings of the BBC NOW; Hansel & Gretel

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Sitting in Cheltenham Town Hall last Saturday for a concert of music by the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was a boilingly hot, practically overheating, experience. This was nothing whatsoever to do with the endless waves of sunshine with which we’re currently being treated, and everything to do with the première to which we were being subjected, Richard Blackford’s Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra. Exasperation had begun to set in even before Martyn Brabbins had started to conduct the piece, due to the fact that the performance was preceded by a 20-minute – let me say that again: 20-minute – introduction to the piece by Blackford in ‘conversation’ with Christopher Cook. In reality, it wasn’t a conversation at all, since Blackford responded to each of Cook’s supposedly spontaneous questions with a lengthy pre-written script that he cleaved to as if his life depended on it. It was one of the most excruciatingly cringeworthy bits of narcissistic verbiage i have ever heard, in which anyone who didn’t know better would be forgiven for thinking Blackford was the first person in history to have composed music in two tempi simultaneously (gasp!). His mixture of self-aggrandising pomposity and stilted humour was agonising to sit through, and since i’m not elderly, infirm or retarded, i could hardly have objected more passionately to this kind of overweening spoon-feeding. i honestly felt like asking him if he’d like to wipe my mouth when he’d finished. Read more

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Mixtape #47 : Travelogue

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For my July mixtape, i’ve decided to take myself on an impromptu trip around mainland Europe. With the help of Google Maps, i’ve plotted a course that’s somewhat circuitous but which manages to take in most of the continent. Starting in Holland (I Was A Teenage Satan WorshipperRyoji Ikeda), we move down through Belgium (Autechre) and France (Andrew Liles) to the coast of Portugal (John Oswald). Coming back through Spain (Fergus KellySPC ECO) and detouring into France again (Karsten PflumZbigniew Karkowski) brings us to Monaco (John Debney), followed by a more prolongued period in Italy (Susanne SundførYelleJohn Williams). Then we head north through Switzerland (Johnny Williams) for a longer stay in Germany (The Noisettes, Cluster, Bath40, Marc Behrens), before heading south again, through the Czech Republic (White Sea), glancing off Italy one final time (Muséum) and then down to the southern reaches of Croatia (FURT plus) and Bosnia and Herzgovina (Francis Dhomont), ending up for a bit of R&R in Greece (Three Drives).

The journey through eastern and northern Europe initially takes us through Bulgaria (Brian Eno), Romania (The Noisettes) and Hungary (Alexandre Desplat), then we veer across to Austria (James Newton Howard) before heading north rapidly through Poland (Kate HavnevikJoy Division) as far as Latvia (Markus Reuter). A brief jaunt in Russia follows (Cabaret VoltaireBersarin Quartett), whereupon we head for the Nordic countries via Estonia (Velvcsze), passing through Finland (Brothomstates) before travelling across the Baltic Sea (Somatic Responses) to Sweden (Lady & Bird), Denmark (Iain ArmstrongScott Walker) and Norway (Isaiah Ceccarelli). The epilogue to the journey involves leaving the mainland, flying first to the Faroe Islands (Zinovia) and finally arriving in Iceland (J.Viewz).

At a mere two hours’ duration, the mix is one hell of a whistle-stop tour; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music: Read more

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The Dialogues: Helena Tulve

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i’m thrilled to to present a new addition to my series The Dialogues, which, on this occasion, finds me in conversation with the Estonian composer Helena Tulve, whose work i’ve admired for many years. Although widely-known across Europe, Tulve’s music – like most Estonian music (with one obvious exception) – is very rarely heard in UK concert halls. Considering how radical and unconventional her music is this is unfortunate, though there’s some mitigation to be found in the two albums of her music released by ECM, Lijnen (2008) and Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia (2014) (an earlier album, Sula, released by Estonian Radio in 2005, is extremely hard to find but well worth the effort). Discussion about Tulve’s work is similarly neglected, and as far as i’ve been able to ascertain, this Dialogue may be the first really in-depth interview with Tulve to have been published anywhere, in which case i’m glad to have been able to shed some light on her music and the compositional thinking behind it.

As usual, i’ve interpolated numerous excerpts from Tulve’s music throughout the Dialogue to expand upon and illustrate some of the points being made in our conversation. A complete list of these excerpts can be found below with the time in the audio when they occur, together with links to buy the music – though it should be noted that many of them are taken from live recordings and are not presently available. Please also note the small number of footnotes i’ve added below which address a couple of ambiguities and errors (on my part) that cropped up in the discussion.

i want to thank Helena for being so generous with her time and so forthcoming in our conversation. It’s my sincere hope that this Dialogue will go some way to the whetting of appetites and a deeper understanding of her music and compositional outlook, and that as a consequence we might hear a lot more of her work, both live and on recordings, in future. In my view, she’s one of the most outstanding composers working today. For those wanting to explore Tulve’s work further, there are some links at the end. i also want to thank Mari Arnover for providing the photo used on the artwork.

Finally, having noted the general absence of her music in UK concert halls, there’s a rare chance to hear one of Tulve’s most overwhelming works, her 2007 orchestral piece Extinction des choses vues, at a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at Maida Vale next Wednesday. It’s an opportunity absolutely not to be missed – though for those who can’t be there, the concert is being recorded for broadcast at a later date.
Read more

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Beyond Pythagoras, Phantom Images

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Perhaps the most consistently and fearlessly challenging of UK new music labels is Huddersfield Contemporary Records. As such, they’re not exactly a label needing to up their game, but with their latest couple of albums they’ve done just that, releasing some of the most unforgettable stuff i’ve heard this year. Before discussing Beyond Pythagoras and Phantom Images it’s worth mentioning that, in keeping with the exploratory compositional curiosity that prevails at Huddersfield University, the first impression these discs make is as research publications, the product of intense academic consideration and scrutiny. i only mention this because, first, very few labels seek to place up-front the scholarly, investigative aspects of the music; second, this is not (as a listener) anything to be afraid of; and third, that’s far from being the whole story. Personally, i like being able to engage with the academic side of this kind of music-making. It highlights the experimentalism that underpins most innovation, as well as the provisional nature of such experiments; this, in turn, punctures the bubble – continually re-inflated with perfumed, romantic helium – that composition is all about divine inspiration and magic. Composition, at its best, is about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, about feeling the ‘earth’ of the musical stuff between your fingers and finding how it wants and you want it to be shaped; it’s about hunches and algorithms and wild guesses and systems and why-the-hell-nots and struggles and elation, with concomitant failures and triumphs. Maybe all i’m trying to say in this now way overlong opening paragraph is that Huddersfield Contemporary Records really gets this, and these two discs are a superbly authentic testament to the rigour and the glee that the best compositions encompass and embody. Read more

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Tom Mudd – Gutter Synthesis, Jeroen Diepenmaat – Ode

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Another recent release from the Entr’acte label that’s been intriguing me lately is Gutter Synthesis by British electronic experimentalist Tom Mudd. The six tracks on the album are divided between three Gutter Synthesis pieces and three Gutter Organ pieces, all of which were composed using Mudd’s own software, created specifically for this project.

The Gutter Synthesis tracks are, in general, more austere and meandering. The first features an interesting interplay between a low drone and varying quantities of shifting surface jitter and squeal, highly metallic in character and punctuated by occasional sonic punches. The second, more engagingly, presents a seemingly self-contained computer process, as though the machine were turning over ideas, examining them and juxtaposing them, in the process forming a vague notion of pulse. Metallic timbres are the focus here too, made more challenging due to the piercing intensity they develop later on. In Gutter Synthesis 3 we hear an apparently arbitrary procession of sound objects, some low and gritty, others high and pure. In some respects this track is a paradigm of the album as a whole, inasmuch as it benefits considerably from repeated listenings, the process of which diminishes the pervading austerity and brings clarity (or, at least, familiarity, which can be the same thing) to the strange narrative in this and all the other tracks, such that they become increasingly compelling. Read more

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Coppice – Surreal Air Fortress

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For many years now i’ve been following the output of Joseph Kramer and Noé Cuéllar’s experimental duo Coppice. Their music is not only difficult to categorise, utilising a vast array of appropriated, re-purposed, handmade and/or otherwise kludged bits of elaborate mechanical paraphernalia, but also impossible to predict. ‘Frictional’ is a word that would once have gone some way to characterising the basis of their sonic palette, but over the last few years the range and nature of the sounds they’ve employed has expanded to the point that, if you weren’t told what was being used, it would be nigh-impossible to work out. And Coppice (not unlike Matmos) have always been supremely good at detailing the appliances they wield, testifying to the sense of pride the duo has in them, and in the case of their latest release, a 30-minute album titled Surreal Air Fortress, the list of ‘instruments’ is typically eclectic, including a ‘reconstituted copper plate’, a ‘barbed object’, ‘pining object’ and ‘dead air object’, a ‘Prepared pump organ’, a ‘fake Leslie Cabinet’ and ‘fake Rhodes’, a ‘modified boombox’ and some ‘no-kink corrugated tubing’. Such a variety of sources points to either the kind of pell-mell whimsy where random things are thrown together, or to a fastidious, considered approach to the juxtaposition of elements. i think there’s a bit of both, actually – even at their most austere, Coppice display more than a trace of caprice – though overall it’s the apparent care taken in the creation of their music that’s most evident and consistently impressive.

Even making allowances for Coppice’s unpredictability, Surreal Air Fortress came as a genuine surprise. There are words! They sing!! Described by Cuéllar and Kramer as “songs for physical modelling and modular syntheses”, the essence of the two tracks on the album undeniably fits within an expanded notion of ‘song’. Each takes the form of a triptych, only the first of which, Privacy and Difference, contains words. The opening section establishes a paradigm for the whole album, specifically an intriguing lack of clarity about whether it’s the duo or their apparatus that’s the driving force, making most of the decisions. Indeed, ‘decisions’ may not really be the best word, as one of the key attributes of Surreal Air Fortress overall is incidentality: a strong sense that the collection of pulsed episodes we pass through – to call them ‘beats’ would be absurd, and even describing the music as ‘rhythmic’ is stretching a point – have emerged inadvertently as a by-product of the literal machinations of the equipment. Read more

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North of North, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras – Ellesmere

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My first encounter with the music of Anthony Pateras – in the form of last year’s The Slow Creep of Convenience, his duo with violinist Erkki Veltheim – was a mind-blowing experience, one of the best things i had heard all year. So i was excited when two new discs arrived recently, both featuring Pateras, in guises that are both similar to and very different from that previous release. They’ve been giving me much to think about, particularly with regard to improvisation.

North of North is a trio project in which Pateras and Veltheim are joined by trumpeter Scott Tinkler, and their latest self-titled album, released a couple of months back on the trio’s own label _offcompass_, is a three-part improvised journey called Church Of All Nations. Where improvisation is concerned, there’s an important distinction to be made between short-term and long-term perspectives. The most interesting improvisations i’ve heard don’t simply pay equal attention to both these perspectives, but unfold in such a way as to keep throwing emphasis on one such that our understanding of the other is enriched. The effect on the listener is akin to cinematic zooms and panning, pushing in to scrutinise filigree surface details, pulling out to reveal their broader context. As far as Church Of All Nations is concerned there’s an immediate hint, even before listening, that long-term considerations have been borne in mind, since the three parts are presented in the non-sequential order 1-3-2, an interesting decision that perhaps says something about the overall tone and content of the piece. Read more

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Only Connect 2018 (Part 2)

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From the lofty architecture of Sentralen, day two of the Only Connect festival took place in the infinitely more modest environment of Skippergata, a relaxed café-bar-nightclub with various large and small performance spaces. Though the venue was low-key, the concerts were anything but.

Flautist Alessandra Rombolà’s rendition of Christina Kubisch‘s 1974 Emergency Solos – a work the composer described during the festival as her “goodbye to instrumental music” – was one of the most agonisingly authentic performances i can remember. Kubisch reflects on the stumbling blocks, barriers and expectations that confronted her as a woman musician at the time by inflicting ever more hindrances on the flautist: thimbles on all the fingertips, causing regular jams on the keys; playing on just the headjoint with a condom placed over the end – subsequently used as a bladder to elicit groaning squeaks; stuffing the instrument into a gas mask, resulting in increasingly desperate in- and exhalations, the flute buzzing and producing strained blurts of pitch before finally dying; forced to put down the instrument in order to adopt a defensive posture behind boxing gloves; and attempting to play ‘Silent Night’ while wearing mittens. Read more

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Mixtape #46 : Body

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For the new 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned to that which is closest to us all: the human body. Not a particularly promising theme, you might think, but once i began digging through my music library the sheer quantity of body references quickly became overwhelming (take your pick whether that says something about music in general or my collection in particular). i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each begun with a track concerning the whole body: part one rises from the feet up to the waist and hips, part two moves up the arms from the fingertips to the shoulders and chest, then there’s an interlude focusing on the heart (the only part of the mix to delve inside the body), and finally part three ascends from the chin to the top of the head. Appropriately enough for a body-oriented mix, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek from time to time, and because of what i wanted to include i’ve relaxed my usual rule of only featuring an artist once.

The range of music encountered on the journey is as broad as you’ve come to expect from these mixes, encompassing electronica and dance (Above & Beyond, Goldfrapp, Art Of Noise, Sunken Foal, Freezepop, Peaches, Venetian Snares, Depeche Mode, Erotic Market, Ryoji Ikeda, Bloodgroup, Gazelle Twin, Prurient, Body Sculptures, Man Without Country, Purity Ring, The Flashbulb, Björk, Kate Wax), film and TV scores (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Cliff Martinez, Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi & Fajar Yuskemal, tomandandy, Jay Chattaway, Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch, Howard Shore, Jim Williams, Jed Kurzel, James Newton Howard, Mica Levi, Jerry Goldsmith), light music (Paddy Kingsland, Bass Communion, Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, The Real Tuesday Weld), pop of various chamber, rock, lyrical and plastic hues (Belle and Sebastian, Transvision Vamp, Chromatics, Björk, Anna Madsen, OY, Lene Alexandra, Chvrches, Goldfrapp, Sleep Party People, Kate Havnevik, Braids, CocoRosie), ambient (Venetian Snares, Chubby Wolf, Nordvargr, Not, Pinkcourtesyphone, David Wenngren & Christopher Bissonnette, Moss Covered Technology), leftfield and experimental (Frank Zappa, Squarepusher, Waldron, Stapleton, Sigmarsson, Haynes & Faulhaber, Grutronic, irr. app. (ext.)), and electronic (Aranos, Andrew Liles, Pauline Oliveros, Hecq, The Hafler Trio, The Caretaker, John Zorn, Indignant Senility, Daniel W J Mackenzie).

Four hours of bodily bits and bobs; here’s the tracklisting in full, including links to get hold of the music. Once again, the mix can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Only Connect 2018 (Part 1)

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At contemporary music festivals one becomes accustomed to expecting the unexpected. However, in the case of Norway’s Only Connect festival, which took place last weekend in Oslo, expectations were overturned in no small part by the weather, due to the country experiencing its warmest May in over 70 years, basking in constant sunshine and 28°C temperatures. As a consequence this was new music not only at its most exciting, but also at its sweatiest, for performers and audiences alike. Organised by nyMusikk, Norway’s 80-year old centre for experimental music and sound art, Only Connect’s two days of concerts took the festival name seriously, arranging the concerts such that each day was essentially a journey round or through a single space. Read more

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The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

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The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Night Liminal; Who knows if the moon’s

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A couple of performances of my work are coming up soon. Most imminently is the #EarBox series of art and music performances organised by the University of Kent. Their next event features my 2012 ambient work Night Liminal in conjunction with a new exhibition titled Extending the Frame. It’s taking place at 1.10pm on Thursday 24 May at Studio 3 Gallery, in the University’s Jarman Building, and admission is free. Further details can be found on the University’s music department blog, and you can read all about Night Liminal here.

To mark the occasion i’ve created a 50% discount code for the digital download of Night Liminal, valid until the end of this month. Head over to the Bandcamp page and when adding to the cart enter the code earbox to get the discount.

And next month soprano Jessica Summers will be giving the world première of my song for solo voice Who knows if the moon’s. Despite lasting a mere two minutes, this little song – a setting of E. E. Cummings’ well-known poem – is a piece i once thought i’d never complete. It dates back to my undergraduate days; i broke off working on it in May 1995 following the abrupt death of my father, and could never bring myself to return to it. It then sat around for nearly two decades until i rediscovered the sketches and finally managed to complete it during my PhD at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Partly because of how personal it’s become, i’ve not shown the piece to many people, but i’m delighted that Jessica will finally be performing it; it really is high time i let go of this music.

Accompanied by pianist Jelena Makarova, the concert is one of Jessica’s Living Songs recitals, and takes place at 1.15pm on 12 June at St Mary-at-Hill Church in London. The concert also includes music by Debussy and Stuart MacRae. More details can be found at the church’s website, and the Living Songs project can be followed on Twitter at @LivingSongs21.

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Robert Scott Thompson – Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees, William Price – Rush Hour

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A couple of noteworthy albums of electronic music by US composers have found their way to me recently. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees by Robert Scott Thompson was released last year and pretty much tells you everything you need to know in that title. Aesthetically, the five pieces contained on this album are a melding of acousmatic and ambient, with some implied whiffs of new age, quasi-spiritual incense thrown in. On the one hand, there’s something rather dated about the timbral palette of these works – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to learn they were composed in the mid-1990s – but this isn’t necessarily an issue (indeed, of itself this could be regarded as appealing) and in any case the way the ambient outlook – which dominates overall – is fleshed out with acousmatic details makes this a negligible concern.

This ambient outlook manifests primarily at a structural level. Put simply, there’s a looseness to the structure of these pieces such that their moment-by-moment activity is more significant – or, at least, attracts more focus – than their long-term direction. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to say that many of them don’t have a clear overall sense of direction, and the extent to which this feels problematic varies from piece to piece. In the case of the title work, it is a problem; there’s a lot to enjoy – the mix of cimbalom- and bell-like pitches interspersed with soft bursts of turbulence, and particularly the way Thompson creates ‘melodies’ apparently from the noise of metallic friction – but due to its half-hour duration it ultimately comes to feel meandering and inconsequential, which for a work evidently seeking to tap into a certain meditative quality is pretty fatal. By contrast the 10-minute Magiae Naturalis really works; bringing to mind the earlier music of Adrian Moore, its ambient mindset is more potent playing out within a much shorter time-span. Read more

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José Manuel López López – Horizonte Ondulado

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My ears have recently been extensively tickled by the sound of percussion, courtesy of Horizonte Ondulado (Undulating Horizon), the latest release from the always interesting Neu label, exploring five works for percussion by Spanish composer José Manuel López López. As always, Neu have lavishly produced the album in a beautiful slipcase containing a 60-page book discussing the music, though i have to say on this occasion i found myself unconvinced – and in some cases downright turned off – by López López’s in-depth explanations. They’re interesting from an anecdotal perspective, but what’s going on in these pieces is for the most part sufficiently straightforward to make the lengthy accompanying discussions feel excessive, almost as if they’re trying to prove a point.

The music itself, performed by percussion group Drumming and Miquel Bernat, is highly engaging, generally concerned with structures demarcated by different kinds of behaviour or texture. In the case of African Winds II for two marimbas and vibraphone, the result is a cross between a moto perpetuo and a stream of consciousness, utilising an attractive harmonic language that’s mobile yet feels fundamentally grounded. Despite being somewhat monotonous as it progresses, there’s a distinct sense of fun running throughout. Solo marimba piece Ekphrasis establishes something akin to a stasis, though created from material that’s tremulous and halting in nature, the instrument seemingly half in shadow. Very gradually López López develops this into an attractive, contrapuntal soundworld that retains something of the vagueness from earlier, passing through various passages of ticking-over tremolos. Read more

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Mixtape #45 : Birds

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At the start of May each year, i always find myself thinking about birds, as the first Sunday of the month is marked globally as International Dawn Chorus Day, something i celebrated in a podcast back in 2010. So the theme for this month’s mixtape is of an avian persuasion – not actually focusing on actual birdsong (some of which were featured in last month’s Spring mixtape) but on music that in some way either references, alludes to or simply takes its name from birds. It’s a typically eclectic mixture, encompassing playfulness (The Real Tuesday Weld, Venetian Snares, Clark, Secret Chiefs 3, Broadcast, Tangerine Dream, Patrick Wolf, Neil Richardson), elegance (Chubby Wolf, Tōru Takemitsu, Aidan Baker, Simon Goff & Thor Harris, Dita Von Teese, Robin Guthrie, Deerhoof, Bernat Vivancos), gritty noir (Gorau Glas, Christopher McFall, Tout Croche, Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch, James Newton Howard, The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble), experimental (Akita / Gustafsson / O’Rourke, Jan Jelinek) along with tracks that are either imitative or almost entirely transparent (Åke Parmerud, Chris Watson, Steve Peters, Douglas Quin – whose music punctuates the mix at 30-minute intervals).

90 minutes of feather-strewn blasts and murmurations; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links (where possible) to obtain the music. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Maria Kõrvits – through (World Première)

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The second piece i’m looking at in this Estonia in Focus weekend is through, a new work for seven players by Maria Kõrvits. In some respects it’s reasonable to think of through as a ‘mood piece’, drawing for inspiration on a series of short lines taken from the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves:

Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.
I hold a stalk in my hand.
I am the stalk.

My roots go down to the depths of the world,
through earth dry with brick, and damp earth,
through veins of lead and silver.

I am all fibre.
All tremors shake me,
and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.

…and I feel come over me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down and down
till they wrap themselves round
some hardness at the centre.
I am rooted, but I flow.

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