Mix Tape #28 : Speech

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For the last Mix Tape of 2013, i’ve decided to explore music in which speech is paramount. Within a musical context, spoken words can jar in much the same way as an actor breaking the fourth wall, unsettling us by (ostensibly at least) withholding abstraction in favour of direct reference. The range of pieces included in the mix is more eclectic than usual, drawing on offcuts, afterthoughts & outtakes (Hecq, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Kreng, Aphex Twin), filtered renderings, recreations & re-imaginings of speech (Cabaret Voltaire, Charles Dodge, John Hudak, Gregory Whitehead, Marc Behrens, Jean-Michel Jarre) as well as forms of non-singing (AGF & the peerless William Shatner). But most of the tracks exploit the spoken word through fascinating essays in obscure narrative, by turns sinister (Eugene S. Robinson), prosaic (Jóhann Jóhannsson, Anne-James Chaton), sexual (Andrew Liles), wistful (Steve Peters), intimate (Edward Ka-Spel), surreal (Olga Neuwirth, irr. app. (ext.)), poetic (John Wall/Alex Rodgers), combative (Frank Zappa) & philosophical (Adrian Moore). Read more

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Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

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Now that a fortnight has passed since the deafening broohaha of the Last Night, it’s time to look at how you, esteemed readers, have voted in the 5:4 Proms polls. 545 votes were cast this year, & having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought.

Worst New Work

Nishat Khan/Pete Stacey – The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1)

The Proms première quality control took a real nosedive this year, & no-one can blame you for voting this hackrag as the worst of them. As i mentioned at the time, fingers need to pointed as much at Pete Stacey (who appears to have done most of the actual ‘hard’ work) as Nishat Khan, for creating one of the most ghastly examples of culturally confused, ingratiating sonic ghee you’ll ever have the misfortune to hear. Perhaps there’s a place in society for music that actually makes you feel more stupid while you listen to it (e.g.), but that place really shouldn’t be the Proms.

Runners Up

Diana Burrell – Blaze
Anna Clyne – Masquerade
Gerald Barry – No other people.

i know, right? So it seems when composers aren’t interested in either shocking or flattering us, they’ll opt simply to bore us with half-baked banalities. Not, it has to be said, terribly unpredictable in the case of a couple of these composers, but that doesn’t stop it becoming rather cuttingly irritating as the minutes slowly tick past. It would be pushing it to call Anna Clyne’s Last Night barnstormer “banal”, but it certainly lacked anything approximating originality, so it’s hardly surprising you voted so strongly against it.

Best New Work

Colin Matthews – Turning Point

86% of you gave a positive response to Colin Matthews’ new work, & even though it wasn’t my favourite of the premières, i can see where you’re coming from. Surprise & no little relief accompanied my experience of listening to the piece, particularly due to its refreshing (if rare) determination to avoid Faberian blandaties. “There’s a kind of majesty to it” i opined at the time, & that view hasn’t changed; the kind of dramatic rug-pulling Matthews comes up with, coupled with his nicely effective problem-cum-solution structure, go a long way to making this his most imaginative new work in a long time.

Runners Up

Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto
Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied
Thomas Adès – Totentanz

No arguments here; i enjoyed all three of these works immensely, & they each seem to yield more & more on further listenings. It’s shameful that it took until Helmut Lachenmann’s 78th year before he was featured at the Proms (& 33 years since the Tanzsuite was first heard), but perhaps one should just celebrate the happening rather than picking fights about the wait. i still can’t quite get my head around what Rzewski’s up to in his Concerto; time will tell. As for Totentanz, maybe some of the backroom sneering that’s been a perennial accompaniment to Adès’ career might shut up for a bit in the face of what is a breathtaking addition to the repertoire. i don’t trot out words like ‘masterpiece’ very often, but i cleave firmly to my initial view of the piece, it really does seem to have that written all over it.

As to my own peeves & faves, the ‘new’ works by Philip Glass & David Matthews left me, literally, shouting at the speakers. i’ve wasted enough words on those twin monstrosities, so no need for anything more here, except to say i’m bewildered at the amount of support Glass’ music continues to ‘enjoy’; a little over half the votes for that piece were positive. Go figure. Turning to the triumphs, in addition to the Adès & Lachenmann scores, another favourite of my own this year was a piece that seems to have been skirted over by most of you who voted: Edward Cowie’s Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps that was due to a lack of listeners—the title, implying it can be filed under ‘eco-message’ possibly doesn’t help—but if so, that’s a shame, as Cowie’s music manages to get his point across purely through a sense of celebration & wonderment, & his sonic language is disarmingly but invitingly complex. If you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure to do so, as it’s a rather rarefied delight.

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Proms 2013: Anna Clyne – Masquerade (World Première)

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All good things etc., & this year it fell to composer Anna Clyne—& the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop—to get underway the biggest party-masquerading-as-a-concert of them all, the Last Night of the Proms. In calling her short work Masquerade, Clyne is presumably alluding chiefly to the carnival atmosphere of a masquerade ball, an atmosphere to which her music went some way to living up to.

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Proms 2013: Peter Eötvös – DoReMi (UK Première)

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The penultimate première of this year’s Proms almost didn’t happen last Thursday, when two of the trio of percussionists failed to turn up, resulting in seven or eight rather tense minutes while presumably a host of minions dashed about behind the scenes attempting to find & drag them onstage. It falls to these three players to begin DoReMi, the second violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, so their eventual arrival was met with a generous round of applause as well as, one imagines, some hefty sighs of relief. Eötvös composed the work for Midori, the title being a pun (of sorts) on her name, in addition to its obvious reference to the notes C, D & E (in solfège); she was joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Read more

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Proms 2013: Charlotte Seither – Language of Leaving (World Première)

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What is this “I”: is it my physical presence, is it the temporality in which I stand and pass away, is there an independence of my thoughts from that which I am, or is my entire being merely a fiction of me myself?

This metaphysical conundrum is the starting point for Language of Leaving by the German composer Charlotte Seither, given its world première at the Proms last Wednesday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & BBC Singers conducted by Josep Pons. It’s a question as circular as it is taxing, subjective & strange, & Seither’s gambit is to seek a way into it via speculative music, avoiding a direct mode of expression in favour of a large tapestry of weird, fantastical sonics, equal parts humanistic, supernatural & magical. Setting a text would be impossible in a context such as this, so Seither instead uses words by Francesco de Lemene in the most oblique & intangible way, reducing them to a collection of hints, glimpses & afterthoughts.

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Proms 2013: Param Vir – Cave of Luminous Mind (World Première)

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Last Wednesday’s world première of Param Vir‘s new Proms commission, Cave of Luminous Mind, gave particular pause for thought in light of its position in the season. Twice recently we have been presented by works from composers of Indian descent (Nishat Khan & Naresh Sohal), works seeking at least in part to acknowledge the disjunct traditions of east & west, yet both composers seemed compelled not to seek a deep synthesis, but to contrive a weak symbiosis by diluting their respective sources of inspiration & tribute. Aside from these works, just once has the (holy) ghost of religion raised its head in this year’s new music (from Sofia Gubaidulina), & then in violently apocalyptic fashion. Which brings us to Cave of Luminous Mind, another of Param Vir’s works in which “Tibetan Buddhism is once again a source of inspiration […] inspired by the meditational journey towards enlightenment of the Tibetan saint Milarepa”, & which is dedicated to contemporary music’s most radical of spiritual seekers, Jonathan Harvey. On its own terms as well as in light of these preceding works, Cave of Luminous Mind was already thought-provoking even before the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, had played a single note. Read more

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Proms 2013: John Woolrich / Tansy Davies – Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focussed on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he & five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round’; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich & Tansy Davies.

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