Best Albums of 2010 (Part 1)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Continuing the 5:4 retrospective, and after probably far too much deliberation, here are the first twenty of my forty Best Albums of 2010 (to be concluded tomorrow):

40 | Jenks Miller and Nicholas Szczepanik – American Gothic
Barely suppressed abrasion is the undercurrent throughout this fruitful collaboration. The context for it couldn’t be more gentle; “Sin Killers”, for example, suspends the rough edges as in a viscous liquid. But when the noise senses freedom, it’s like a bull at a gate; at first, in “White Light”, it emerges in fits and starts, but ultimately runs amok in final track “Cranberry Sauce”, turning its exquisitely beautiful stasis into an overwhelming torrent of effluvial overdrive.

39 | Supersilent – 10
Last year’s 9 proved conclusively that there was life for Supersilent after Jarle Vespestad’s departure, and its successor goes even farther. It’s Arve Henriksen’s astonishing trumpet-work that dominates this album, by turns evanescent (“10.1”), claustrophobic (“10.6”), and lyrical (“10.8” – one of this year’s most beautiful tracks), but at no point sounding remotely like a conventional trumpet. The evocative use of organ and electronics takes turns in both background and foreground; restraint is the watchword, though, only very occasionally protruding more forcefully, as in the bass thuds of the penultimate track. Read more

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Best EPs of 2010

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And so it finally begins, the lengthy annual retrospective of all that was best in 2010. As usual, let’s start with my run-down of the 10 Best EPs of the year:

10 | dB Soundworks – Steambirds (iOS) Soundtrack
Something of an oddity in this list, perhaps, but Danny Baranowsky’s synthetic score for the splendid iPhone game Steambirds is incredibly effective. He’s managed to capture perfectly the atmosphere and mannerisms suitable for the game’s airborne antics, bringing to mind the soundtracks of any number of British WWII films. The four-minute “Main Theme”, in particular, is full of variety, never composing by numbers, while the additional “Boss Track” takes the invention even further, supplemented by two splendid miniatures, corresponding to success or failure in the game. It’s available free (or not, if you’re feeling generous) via the dB Soundworks Bandcamp page. While you’re there, check out Baranowsky’s music for Canabalt, also stirring stuff.

9 | David Lynch – Good Day Today/I Know
Okay, hands up anyone who predicted David Lynch would bring out a single this year? Keep your hand up if you also knew it would be a delicate electronic dance number. No-one? Defying expectations with his typical enthusiasm and flair, Lynch’s twin A-side took everyone by surprise, maybe even Lynch himself. Über-processed vocals, autotuned to the nth degree, laid over a brisk, unimposing disco beat, it could all have been horribly cheesy. But Lynch somehow pulls off experiments like this, not only sounding like no-one else, but actually making it kind of cool. The more laid-back “I Know” is even better, more obviously Lynchian, ominous and rather unnerving. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Jan Sandström, June Nixon, Judith Weir, Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première) & Marcel Dupré

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MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

As is the custom on 5:4, here are highlights from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, which took place on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Day broadcast is always preferable, as it includes the final organ voluntaries.

In a delicious repeat from last year, is Jan Sandström‘s gorgeously dreamy rendering of Det är en ros utsprungen; Praetorius’ original music is practically unrecognisable, but when the result is as rapturously beautiful as this, who cares? Pieces like this prove best how good the King’s College choir really is, negotiating their way through the dense shifting clouds of notes apparently effortlessly.

The occasion continues to be staunchly male-dominated, so it’s refreshing and badly-needed to hear an arrangement by June Nixon (a name probably unfamiliar to many; she is in fact a well-known organist in her native Australia). Her setting of The holly and the ivy, which turns it into a joyous dancing romp, is so much better than its traditional version that it deserves to be heard much, much more often. Read more

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Interrobang – works by Elliott Carter, Paul Dolden, Javier Álvarez & more

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Anyone in the Birmingham area tomorrow night (Monday 13th) might be interested in the next concert my ensemble, Interrobang, is giving. The concert will feature a number of works by established composers, intermingled with four pieces by students and graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire (where Interrobang is based). It includes a new work of my own, composed for BCMG at the end of the last year and explored in a workshop with them in the spring, but not yet performed in public. Here’s the programme:

Etelka Nyilasi – Visions in the Northern Sky for 6 players
Simon Cummings – Intense quick dream of sentimental groups with people of all possible characters amidst all possible appearances for string sextet (World Première)
Ryan Latimer – The Canon of Medicine for piano trio (World Première)
Elliott Carter – Scrivo in Vento for solo flute
Paul Dolden – In a Bed Where the Moon was Sweating. Resonance #1 for clarinet & tape (UK Première)
Veleka Algar – From Silence for string sextet (World Première)
Javier Álvarez – Temazcal for maracas & tape

The concert starts at 7.30pm and once again takes place in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall. A map is below; those with GPS should punch in the postcode B3 3HG. If any 5:4 readers are present, do make yourselves known to me during the interval or afterward—would be great to see you!


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20 years on: Enigma – MCMXC a.D.

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It’s one of those curious memories that remains surprisingly vividly—the time: mid-December 1990; the place: Our Price Records on Cheltenham High Street. Having made my way down the narrow stairs to the basement where the CDs were kept (cassettes only upstairs), i stumbled into a collection of sounds the like of which i’d never heard before. Firmly in the foreground, a fake but plausible shakuhachi, ululating its melody above warm, low ambient soft pads; beneath all of that, a strong but subtle dance beat; in and around it—utterly incongruous yet sounding entirely right—a chorus of monks ensconced in their standard issue Gregorian chant. Still trying to get my head around this most unlikely music, i immediately bought the CD single i was hearing: Enigma‘s Sadeness (Part 1). Hot on its heels, released 20 years ago yesterday, came their first album MCMXC a.D., even more ambitious in the breadth and scope of its imagination. Released as it was on the very cusp of a new decade, i don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that MCMXC a.D. was a potent force in shaping the sound of the ’90s. Indeed, it may well have contributed to the worldwide renaissance of Gregorian chant, that blossomed within a few years (spearheaded by the famous monks of Santo Domingo de Silos), and even sooner than that, acts such as The Orb and Future Sound of London were forging their respective ways forward, clearly indebted to Enigma’s imaginative cocktail of sound sources. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Matthew Martin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Sven-Erik Bäck, Roxanna Panufnik – The Call (World Première) & Christopher Robinson

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It’s Advent Sunday, the start of a new Church year, and before you can say “Tis the season…”, here comes the first carol service, broadcast live this afternoon from—as usual—St John’s College, Cambridge.

The introduction to the service began with a setting by Matthew Martin of the 15th century text Adam lay ybounden. While the text is as morally confused as ever, it is at least made a bit more interesting by Martin, whose setting ventures just a little beyond conventional harmonies, made all the more effective by its coming from a distance (the choir performing from the far west end of the chapel). It’s interesting to note that, while the anonymous text is intimately connected with Christmas, hearing it in a setting other than Boris Ord’s horribly hackneyed one keeps the sense of distance from Christmas fittingly strong.

In Out of your Sleep, Richard Rodney Bennett‘s approach is to create a pretend (but convincing) folk melody, left more-or-less plain in the odd verses, harmonised in different ways in the even verses; the final verse is striking, becoming slower and more reflective. Swedish composer Sven-Erik Bäck‘s motet Nox praecessit follows; Bäck allows the words to grow in anticipation organically, building to a busy, fast-flowing climax before ebbing away. There are times when the lower voices are a little unclear, and the final triad seems forced following the fluid harmonies heard throughout; something less resolved might have been more telling, considering the anticipatory tone of the text. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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