Proms 2017: looking forward

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It’s that time again: today all the details of this year’s Proms season have been revealed. From a contemporary music perspective, there are 15 world premières – from Tom CoultRoderick WilliamsLaurent DuruptJulian AndersonBrian EliasJudith WeirPhilip Glass/Ravi Shankar (i know, just don’t), Michael GordonCheryl Frances-HoadJonathan DoveDaniel SaleebGerald Barry, Hannah KendallCatherine Lamb and Lotta Wennäkoski – and nine European/UK premières – from Harrison BirtwistlePascal DusapinAnders HillborgJames MacMillanMark-Anthony TurnageThomas LarcherAndrea Tarrodi, Erkki-Sven Tüür and Missy Mazzoli. Lots of men in those lists: women composers account for a quarter of the premières, which is an improvement on last year but otherwise not in any way an admirable statistic.

Aside from these, John Adams‘ 70th birthday year is being marked with five performances throughout the season (none of them premières, which is surprising, but in its own way a relief), there’s an event both titled and celebrating “The ‘Godlike Genius’ of Scott Walker” (a title that i fully endorse), the London Contemporary Orchestra will be teaming up with Actress for an evening of improvised who-knows-what alongside Exaudi, and there’s a sprinkling of recent works from, among others, Mark Simpson (a chance for London finally to hear The Immortal), David Sawer, Francisco Coll, Thomas Adès, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Louis Andriessen, Kate Whitley, Wolfgang Rihm and Rebecca Saunders. Another list with a lot of men.

The full run-down of contemporary music featured in this year’s Proms season is shown below (**=world première, *=European/UK première); the number of the concert – or the venue, when outside the Royal Albert Hall; PCM = Proms Chamber Music – is shown in square brackets, and clicking on the date will take you to the relevant page on the BBC website. i leave it up to you to decide whether the title of this blog post is accurate. Read more

February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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The Dialogues: Monty Adkins

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It’s a real pleasure to present a new instalment in my occasional series The Dialogues. This episode is in conversation with composer Monty Adkins, whose music i’ve written about many times on 5:4 and hold in very high regard. Our discussion explores a wide range of topics, including the fundamental aspects of Adkins’ compositional aesthetic, the history and development of his practice, the influence of visual art throughout his output alongside musical influences, considerations of beauty, narrative vs. abstract approaches to composition, the relationship between and implications pertaining to ‘authentic’ and artificial sonic environments, types of listening, perceptions of time, notions of the sacred, the imposition (and benefits) of compositional restrictions, the organisation/structuring of non-teleological music, combining electronics with live instruments, and Adkins’ relationship with the listener. In the course of our conversation, several articles and papers written or co-authored by Adkins are referred to; all are freely available to download, and links to all of them can be found below.

As before, i’ve included numerous excerpts of Adkins’ work throughout the Dialogue in order to illustrate or clarify what we’re talking about; a complete list of the excerpts is below, with links to buy/stream the albums from which they come. As usual the Dialogue is available to download or you can stream it via MixCloud. Despite the considerable length of our conversation, both Adkins and i felt afterwards that there was much more to talk about, so there may well be a second part at some point in the future.

i want to thank Monty for generously giving me so much of his time, and for being prepared to talk so openly (and for so long!) about his life and work. The trajectory his music has taken over the last twenty years is markedly different from many involved in electronic music, and i hope both newcomers and long-standing fans of his work will find our discussion as fascinating and illuminating as i did. Read more

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Amber Priestley – floors are flowers — take a few

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i’m ending this year’s Lent series with a beautifully weird little piece by USA-born, UK-based composer Amber Priestley. The work takes its title – floors are flowers — take a few – from an equally short poem by US poet Shel Silverstein, ‘Enter This Deserted House’:

But please walk softly as you do.
Frogs dwell here and crickets too.

Ain’t no ceiling, only blue.
Jays dwell here and sunbeams too.

Floors are flowers – take a few
Ferns grow here and daisies too.

Swoosh, whoosh – too-whit, too-woo
Bats dwell here and hoot owls too.

Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee, hoo-hoooo,
Gnomes dwell here and goblins too.

And my child, I thought you knew
I dwell here… and so do you.

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 2)

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In the previous part, i remarked on Estonian music’s apparent distance from compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And while i also remarked that i don’t believe it’s happening in a vacuum, it is demonstrably removed from many of the attitudes that one tends to take for granted in western Europe, and one of the great positives of this is a surprisingly unconventional approach to the presentation of new music. In this respect, to say that the Estonian Music Days is no ordinary music festival is to put it absurdly mildly: they’re prepared to take real risks yet to do so in a relaxed, carefree way in which creative intent is matched with a sanguine attitude of “what happens, happens”.

Modestly unconventional was the ‘meditation’ conceived by Helena Tulve that preceded Thursday evening’s choral concert by Vox Clamantis (reviewed in Part 1). Lasting thirty minutes, this began as we were entering the Niguliste church, and at first was almost unnoticeable, the four performers (including Tulve and fellow composer Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes) sitting at the four corners of the entrance, each nonchalantly and very softly striking the edge of a glass bowl. What was very clear from the start was that, although aspects were indeterminate, the specific pitches used had been carefully selected (after the concert i noticed that every bowl had a sticker in the bottom giving its precise pitch, including cent deviations). The opening oscillated around the interval of a slightly microtonal minor third which persisted as the players began to move down the nave – joined by a fifth performer whose actions were equal parts music and dance – sliding marbles in their respective bowls, initially barely agitating them, creating a constantly-changing yet static pitch cluster. Having moved to stand at the four corners of the audience in front of tables filled with many more bowls, the pitch range now greatly expanded, still sounding indeterminate yet with a sense of finity, stretching the previously-established stasis. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from a few days in Tallinn, attending Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s annual celebration of contemporary music. Coming away from my first encounter with the EMD last year, and reflecting on the experience after, left me with mixed feelings. Estonian contemporary music is almost entirely unknown beyond its borders, with only Arvo Pärt and to a lesser extent Erkki-Sven Tüür being featured in concert programmes, both of them older generation composers (aged 81 and 57 respectively). It’s perhaps easy to understand, then, why the EMD almost exclusively focuses on Estonian music: if they didn’t, one might reasonably ask, then who would? So in this respect it’s worth pointing the finger in all directions away from Estonia, and asking why the interest doesn’t seem to be there. But there’s another aspect to this. The EMD’s attitude of introspective celebration – not so much an outlook as an ‘inlook’ – is perhaps partly responsible for this apparent external apathy. It’s easy to regard Estonian contemporary music, for the most part, as existing in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble, ostensibly drawing on few of the compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Politics has a significant part to play here; Estonia’s complicated history, veering back-and-forth between foreign rule and independence, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a determination to establish and project a coherent national identity, which in some respects lacks the organic sense of development of less bruised nations. This is not to suggest there’s anything inherently artificial about this identity, not at all, but it goes a long way to accounting for the introspection i mentioned, not simply a desire or an impulsion but a necessity to say, boldly, “this is who we are – this is what we sound like”. From an outsider’s perspective, then, a considerable adjustment is needed when approaching this festival in order to contextualise its very particular kind of music-making and not simply regard it as being disinterested in wider contemporary compositional thought. Writing in Tempo back in 2008 (the last time the festival was featured) Peter Reynolds pondered that “Estonian music has tremendous energy and vitality at the present time, but it is not so clear if this can continue to develop if the country continues to operate in a vacuum”.1 As i’ve indicated above and will elaborate upon below, i don’t believe that it is operating in a vacuum, but Reynolds’ point remains a valid and an important one. Read more

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Morton Feldman – Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety

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To begin the final week of my Lent Series, i’m turning to a curious little miniature by Morton Feldman. Composed in 1970, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety is a work for a small, unusual ensemble of 2 flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, celesta, bells, 2 cellos and 2 double basses. The titular dedicatee, Vera Maurina-Press, was in fact Feldman’s childhood piano teacher (from the age of 12), about whom he spoke very affectionately in a short essay from the early 1960s: “It was because of her – only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian – that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.” And a decade later, his warmth for her remained strong: “Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.”

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