Rebecca Saunders – traces (UK/Austrian Premières)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so to mark this milestone the 5:4 Lent Series will this year be dedicated to her music. Over the course of the next six weeks, i’ll be looking at a number of her pieces in some detail, as well as providing a survey of her work as represented by CDs and downloads. Although Saunders is British born, her music is neglected in the UK; with the exception of Huddersfield, which has consistently provided a platform for her, performances in Britain are infrequent, and premières – notwithstanding last month’s at the Wigmore Hall, a real rarity – are virtually non-existent. It’s perhaps not surprising that Saunders’ music should be better known on the continent, particularly in Germany where she has long resided, but it’s disappointing (though not surprising) that one of the UK’s most renowned and radical compositional figures should be so ignored on her home turf. Furthermore, there has been relatively little serious discussion of her work, so my hope is that this series can go some way to improving that situation.

i’m going to begin with traces, a work that originally dates back to 2006 but was revised in 2009, a process that bumped it up from being for chamber to symphony orchestra. One reasonably expects different performances of the same piece to shed new light and tease out extra details, but in the case of traces that’s true to a surprising degree. i first got to know the piece from the UK première at the 2009 Proms, but some time after i heard a broadcast of the Austrian première and realised i hadn’t really got to know it at all, as it sounded so different. More recently, there was a third opportunity to hear the work when it was performed in Glasgow in 2015 (possibly the Scottish première), which only confirmed the fact that there’s something about traces that makes it seem almost entirely reinvented with each new performance – or, and this is perhaps more pertinent, that there’s something akin to a game of Chinese whispers going on. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – The Night-Sea Journey (World Première)

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To conclude this weekend i’m returning to the music of Helena Tulve and to another world première, which took place last November during one of Estonia’s main contemporary music festivals, AFEKT. A 17-minute work for saxophone, percussion and piano, in a way all one needs to say about it is encapsulated in its title, The Night-Sea Journey. The music is entirely directed toward the implied narrative of that title, inhabiting a nocturnal world of shadows and moonlight, progressing – in my mind, anyway – across water. At least, that’s one way of hearing it, taking the title literally.

Heard in this way, the piece conjures a foreboding, difficult soundworld. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe its music as lyrical – it is, abundantly – yet of the blackest, most brooding kind, drenched in uncertainty and anguish. Initially, there’s a sense of the trio huddled together, not so much playing as making tentative suggestions: a simple piano idea based on oscillating octaves, air noise through the sax, soft suspended cymbal rolls. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything at all, yet in light of where the piece goes from here, in hindsight it’s like lighting a touchpaper. Read more

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In memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson

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First encounters can be unforgettable. Mine was in 2006, and it was the result of an entirely random purchase of an entirely random imported music magazine (German, i think) that contained a disc featuring a cluster of forgettable audio trifles plus a music video. When i hit play on that video, time suddenly started to slow down, and i became transfixed and deeply moved by the enormity of the music’s unusual mix of melancholy and beauty. The music was ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden death has been reported in the last few hours. He was just 48.

i can’t claim to be an expert in Jóhannsson’s music. i love IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, the album of which ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim’ is the stunning final track, and i know a smattering of his other solo works. Being a movie addict, i’m also fond of the film scores of his that i’ve encountered thus far – particularly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – though as i still haven’t yet seen Sicario and Prisoners there remains much for me to explore. i’m certainly not going to miss The Mercy, which has just been released in the UK and has a Jóhannsson score, and there’s a couple more films still to come that feature his work.

Even though there’s a great deal of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music that i have yet to encounter, all i’ve heard thus far has testified to a composer with a unique sensitivity, capable in both his studio work and film scores of creating the most nuanced and above all human music, never contrived or ordinary, with an immediacy that i find genuinely uncanny. From the heart to the heart, indeed. i was reflecting on Jóhannsson last autumn, specifically how he had been replaced in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which i think was unfortunate – i would have loved to have seen that movie with a Jóhannsson score (it would certainly have been far more inventive than Hans Zimmer’s ersatz Vangelis knock-off) – as well as the mutual decision by both Jóhannsson and Darren Aronofsky to refrain from creating a score for Aronofsky’s mother!. Considering that mother! turned out to be one of the most brilliant films not just of 2017, but ever, i was deeply impressed by a composer who recognised that there’s a time not to make music, that sometimes what’s needed is just the gentlest whiff of something that may not even be recognised as deliberate sound, which can speak with infinitely greater force and authenticity.

In so many ways Jóhann Jóhannsson has impressed me since that unexpected first encounter nearly 11 years ago. i’m shocked and very sad indeed that he’s no longer with us, but i’m determined to make sure that i now get on with listening to everything else that he made while he was with us. i’ve no doubt there’ll be many more wonderful encounters to come. Rest in peace, Jóhann.

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (World Première)

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i’m now turning my attention this weekend to Erkki-Sven Tüür, a composer whose work in many respects sounds distinctly different from a lot of Estonian contemporary music (and as i’ve previously mentioned, he remarked to me last year that he feels himself to be something of an outsider). To get the 100th anniversary festivities of Estonia’s declaration of independence up and running, Tüür was commissioned to compose a new work, which received its world première a few weeks back. The combination of this being Tüür’s ninth symphony, and also being part of an important national celebration, have evidently guided Tüür towards writing a work of considerable epic scope. Subtitling the work ‘Mythos’, Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is a 35-minute, single-movement work that to an extent sets itself apart from the most familiar aspects of his compositional style. Instead of a preponderance of rhythmic and gestural cavorting, Tüür has created a large-scale slab of meticulous musical evolution through shifting textures and atmospheres. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – You and I (World/Estonian Premières)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Thematic series | 3 Comments

In a couple of weeks’ time, on 24 February 2018, it will be an especially significant day for Estonia, marking the 100th anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence, something they’ve had to fight hard to retain through the twentieth century. Estonia is a country i’ve got to know a lot better during the last couple of years, and much of its contemporary music is almost entirely unknown and unheard outside its immediate vicinity (for various reasons, which i’ve touched upon in previous articles). So i’ll be taking the opportunity of this important anniversary to devote a number of weekends throughout the year to exploring more of their contemporary music. This weekend, i’m going to focus on some premières of impressive new works by two of Estonia’s best-known composers, Helena Tulve and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

Helena Tulve’s latest choral work, You and I, sets a text by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. It’s one of a number of pieces Tulve has composed in the last few years to have explored Rumi’s words; North Wind, Sound Wind (2010) for voice, flute, kannel and cello uses them in conjunction with the Biblical Song of Songs, but the closer antecedent for You and I – in terms of both subject and character – is I Am a River, her 2009 choral work that i wrote about last year. Both are concerned with expressions of love, but in comparison with the earlier work, You and I is less playful than mystical, concerned with physical and spiritual union. Read more

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Mixtape #42 : Late Night

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As part of 5:4‘s tenth anniversary celebrations, i’m going to be putting out a new mixtape each month throughout 2018. While they’re quite time-consuming to curate and create, they’re also a lot of fun, and it’s been clear for a long time that the mixtapes are a popular feature on the blog. The very first of my mixtapes dates from the earliest weeks of the blog’s existence, back in February 2008, and for this new mixtape i’m paying homage to myself with a return to that original theme, music for late night listening. In fact, the whole idea of putting out mixtapes began due to the fact that i already created various playlists in iTunes with specific themes or to suit specific listening contexts, and the one i listened to most regularly at that time was a late night one.

The structure of this two-hour mix is four 30-minute sections, each of which is started by a piece by Dick Mills, one of the composers who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; each of the pieces featured here are inspired by astronomical phenomena. Section one is mostly about establishing the tone of the overall mix, focusing on a number of tracks that act via wave-like swells or soft pulses (Bass CommunionBreaking, Venetian Snares, Hecq, Alva Noto) – there’s something intrinsically restful about this kind of behaviour – alongside more mellifluous or amorphous music (Bernat Vivancos, Jonathan Coleclough, Brian Eno). Section two tilts the mix into darker territory, passing through hauntology (The Caretaker), ominous noir (Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch), convoluted field recordings (Christopher McFall) and edgy dark ambience (Ektoise, Aphex Twin).

Section three is the most variegated and, in the best sense of the word, inscrutable, encompassing blank fields of reverberant electronics (Error Genético), slowly shifting, somewhat impenetrable clouds of pitch formations (Kenneth Kirschner, Benjamin Dauer), intense meditations, one long, one short (Mirjam Tally, Nicolas Obouhow) and acousmatic sound-theatre (Kreng). Section four initially takes the mix through its most broken-up textures yet, from both experimental electronic and doomjazz perspectives (Andrew Liles, The Thing With Five Eyes) before bringing it back to stability and calm, through a series of more peaceful ambient-esque pieces (Simon Cummings, Fovea Hex, Ochre). i’ve concluded with a second track by The Caretaker, one that i’ve listened to countless times just before settling down for sleep, bringing the mix to a decidedly poignant end.

The accompanying artwork uses a photograph of the night sky that i took in July 2015. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud; here’s the tracklisting in full, including links to obtain each of the albums: Read more

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Free internet music: Press Charges

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There’s so much i could write about in this series looking at free internet music, that i think it’ll be something i’ll have to return to regularly from now on. For the time being, though, i’m ending this series with an album that’s one of the most imaginative and effective reworkings of existing material that i’ve ever heard. It’s by Irish musician Dunk Murphy of whom, it must be said, i’ve seriously wondered over the last few years if he can do no wrong. He’s the creative force behind the project Sunken Foal, whose three Friday Syndrome volumes (released in 2012, 2013 and 2015) are all absolutely stunning demonstrations of his unique experimental approach to blending acoustic and electronic sounds into something that, stylistically speaking, is very hard to describe, but if we were to call it electronica then that wouldn’t be entirely untruthful.

In between volumes 2 and 3, in 2014 came Press Charges, which appears to be a one-off project, but on its strengths one hopes it’s something Dunk Murphy will return to in the future. Murphy has taken a dozen songs by Smokey Robinson – either more recent solo tracks or older numbers recorded with The Miracles – and used just the vocal line, around which he has created an entirely new musical context. It’s worth stressing that knowledge of the originals is not in any way vital to enjoying this album in its own right; far from it, as one would expect from Murphy they’re a sublimely enjoyable collection of punchy, soul-infused tracks that strike a perfect balance between the edginess of their beat and bass patterns with the overtly lyrical streaks running throughout each song. However, spending time with the originals goes a long way to highlighting just how ingenious are Murphy’s reworkings, which in every case bears almost no resemblance to the original arrangement, yet manage to stay utterly true to the song’s underlying lyrical tone. Read more

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