George Benjamin – Viola, Viola; Three Miniatures for Solo Violin; Into the Little Hill

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George Benjamin is one of the first contemporary composers in whom i became interested, as a teenager. It’s difficult to pin down or articulate quite what i find appealing in his music, and in fact reasonably often i’ve found myself ambivalent about certain pieces. There’s an intensity and earnestness of intention that can be a double-edged sword; his works may come across as somewhat over-wrought and rather too cerebral, but personally i would prefer that to something insufficiently considered any day. Whatever; here are three works from a concert given by Ensemble Modern at the Bockenheimer Depot in November 2007. Read more

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Mix Tape #10 : Melancholia

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Lent—’tis the season to be dolorous, and so the tenth 5:4 mix tape has melancholia as its theme. Both songs and instrumental music are included, taken from a diverse selection of artists and composers.

It begins with the opening of one of the best of William Basinski‘s Disintegration Loops, “d|p 3”. While as a whole these albums constitute a thoroughly over-egged pudding, this track conjures up a rather wistful sort of atmosphere, like a sad sunset. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble create fabulous nocturnal music, stylishly flecked with jazz mannerisms. All of Burial‘s work is shaded by melancholy; “Night Bus” is one of his shortest tracks, bereft of beats, its melody etching out the contours of a furrowed brow. Biosphere seems to capture remoteness in his work better than most, and “Poa Alpina” (from the remarkable Substrata album) is infused with this, underpinned by a deep bass that makes the music sound, literally, heavy. Fellow Norwegian Deathprod ploughs even darker troughs, and “Dead People’s Things” is like music from the end of time, postdiluvian, exhausted, its haunting melody falteringly singing surrounded by ruins. Perennial favourite of mine, Andrew Liles, has produced nothing so strikingly unusual as his “Concerto for Piano and Reverberation”; i included part of the opening in my Piano mix tape, but felt compelled to include it here as it creates such a black, velvety atmosphere, laden with gravitas. Franz Liszt‘s large-scale sacred work Via Crucis is modelled on the Stations of the Cross; two excerpts from the twelfth are featured here. It explores the moment of Christ’s death, beginning with his desperate cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani” and concluding with a gorgeous setting of the chorale, “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (which inspired my own setting). Thomas Adès‘ early string quartet, Arcadiana, has “O Albion” as its penultimate movement, and is a poignant comment on a lost world; Adès once described this movement to me as having two “chest pains”, the moments where the harmony shifts so painfully. Read more

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New electronic work: [ULTRA]—infra

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Self-promotion time once again. Today i finished a new electronic composition, [ULTRA]—infra, a second work in the series begun last November by Negative Silence (detail). It’s being premièred next Monday at a concert of electronic music at Birmingham Conservatoire. i know many (most?) readers of 5:4 aren’t in the UK, but if any of you do happen to be in the area next Monday evening (if so, let me know), you’d be very welcome to come along; starts at 7.30pm. A little more info about the piece here.

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Future Imperfect: Freezepop – Form Activity Motion

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Dear oh dear. It wasn’t terribly long ago that i was lauding Freezepop‘s most recent album, Future Future Future Perfect, and it was with some excitement that i approached their brand new release, a remix EP, the title of which would do Kraftwerk proud: Form Activity Motion. Essentially, just two songs have been chosen for the venture: “Frontload” and “Thought Balloon”, two of the best songs from the album—and this is where the problems start. In choosing a pair of such high quality songs, they’re immediately laying down the gauntlet to remixers to do something that can live up to those originals… a gauntlet that is most emphatically not picked up. One of the most prominent problems with these attempts is that they’ve clearly been created by people with minimal understanding of the harmonic direction of the originals. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, of course, but in both songs it’s quite subtle, and certainly very effective; in many of the remixes, the harmonic progressions have been bowdlerised as though they’d been left in the hands of beginner music students. Read more

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Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender)

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Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns. Read more

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Dark, scintillating gems: Johnny Hollow – Dirty Hands

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Mmelancholy, theatricality and an understated gothic darkness pervade the second and most recent album by Johnny Hollow, Dirty Hands, released last year. And it’s just as well that these qualities are understated; the authentic, original traits of the 1980s indie ‘goth’ have become so hideously contorted into the present-day big label ’emo’ fake that bands seeking to allude to these dark characteristics do well to keep them in check. But there’s not the barest hint of inauthenticity in Johnny Hollow’s output, which begs the question of why this Canadian group is not more well-known. Dirty Hands ended up 19th on my top 40 releases of 2008, and rightly so; it’s a splendid creation, blending instrumental sounds (piano, strings) and electronics into the indie-goth mix, resulting in a music with impressively broad scope. Read more

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Update: Steven Wilson – Insurgentes

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Further to my recent post about Steven Wilson‘s fantastic album Insurgentes, there have been developments. For those fancying themselves as a budding remixer, Wilson has made available material from the opening track, “Abandoner”; go here for more info and the audio stems—there’s also a very nice, mellow remix on there by Engineers, well worth checking out.

Of rather more interest, though, is that there’s finally an alternative for those who missed out on the initial deluxe 2-CD edition, limited to 3,000 copies. Of course, if you really want to, it’s possible to find copies on eBay, but you’ll end up paying in the region of £150-200 for it. On the other hand, the Japanese edition has recently been released, on an HQ CD, with a 40-page booklet, and—crucially—the second CD containing the additional tracks not available elsewhere. There don’t appear to be many copies floating around yet, but prices are much more reasonable, around £40-50. For two such auctions, simply look for ‘Insurgentes’ on Ebay or just go here or here, or if you want to save even more money (but may have to wait longer), take your chances with cdJapan here.

And finally, an HD version of the new “Harmony Korine” video can be seen here.

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