Mixtape #20 : Dancefloor

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Having finally emerged from the dark days of Lent, i thought it would be fitting to have a new mixtape, with an upbeat theme. As i’ve mentioned on previous occasions, dance music has always been a parallel love of mine alongside the avant-garde, and this mixtape will, i hope, prove to be an irresistable selection. As always, there’s a mix of old and new, the oldest being around 13 years old, the newest released last month.

Delphic were included in the BBC Sound of 2010, not exactly a good sign to be sure, and while they’ve failed (as yet) to distinguish themselves, this song isn’t at all bad, and this remix makes it perfect. Above and Beyond are, in my view, the champions of contemporary trance music, and they feature on this mixtape four times; “Stealing Time” is one of the standout tracks from their lovely album Tri-State, released 5 years ago. Connected to Above and Beyond via their Anjunadeep label is Michael Cassette; this is his latest single, a delicious throwback to 1980s synths. Ahead of Delphic in that dreaded BBC 2010 list was Marina Diamandis, better known as Marina and the Diamonds; she’s proved herself to be a real talent, and while “I Am Not A Robot” is pop perfection as it stands, this hard-to-find remix is outstanding. If you’ve never heard of Bloodgroup, they’re an up and coming band from Iceland, specialising in a rather unusual brand of electropop (with occasional similarities to The Human League); this track comes from their latest album and is a good introduction to their music. Read more

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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James MacMillan – Seraph (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent composition, Seraph, a concertino for trumpet and strings, was premièred by Alison Balsom and the Scottish Ensemble a little over a month ago, at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Its bold, militaristic start immediately puts Shostakovich in mind, but this is supplemented with an obvious reference to Joseph Haydn. MacMillan takes the last movement of Haydn’s concerto as his own starting point, using a misquote of its opening phrase as a gesture upon which much of his first movement is centered. While the tone remains boistrous throughout, there are two softer episodes, welcome asides in what is otherwise a surprisingly workaday brand of music that, on more than a few occasions, crosses the line into pastiche. The Haydn quotation isn’t the only Classical affiliation; the presence of three movements—fast-slow-fast—is an obvious connection, and even clearer is the structure of this opening Allegro, replete with recapitulation. Read more

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Detlev Glanert – Musik für Violine und Orchester (UK Première)

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On 11 February, getting on for 15 years since its world première in Darmstadt, Detlev Glanert‘s Musik für Violine und Orchester arrived in the UK, in the hands of Stephen Bryant and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson.

The first movement, ‘Cantus’, is linked to Orpheus, who, according to legend, was an inspirational singer. Sedate and measured, the violin’s opening phrases—pensive ascending scales—are slowly taken up by the orchestra, leading to a rudimentary pulse. It may seem facile to speak of an ‘awakening’ at the start of a piece, but there is a distinct sense of the instruments flexing their muscles in readiness for what’s to follow. A confident sforzando begins the movement proper, in which the violin assumes an overtly ‘narrative’ mood, occasionally deviating from prosaic mutterings to engage in a flurry of melodic fancies that seems to receive an eager response from the orchestra. All the same, over time it projects a slightly empty and dynamically flat brand of lyricism, somewhat without a cause; it’s easy to be distracted by the delightful touches going on around it, such as the light repeated notes in the woodwind. Read more

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Gary Carpenter – Fred & Ginger (World Première)

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Radio 3 has featured a glut of premières recently, from a mixture of established and less well-known names. One such new name (to me, at least) is Gary Carpenter, whose new orchestral piece Fred and Ginger received its first performance on 17 February, broadcast a week later. A little over five minutes in duration, the work draws its inspiration from the characters of the title, Astaire and Rogers—or, more specifically, the ambivalent nature of their relationship in front of (elegant; suave) and away from (argumentative; turbulent) the camera.

It doesn’t start terribly promisingly; the opening gestures suggest the generic, empty kind of material that litters many contemporary scores (particularly those affiliated with Faber). But it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on here than mere posturing: rhythmic convulsions that already hint at something dance-like; sustained tones that may or may not aspire to melody; spasmodic eruptions—initiated by the timpani—that are clearly going to be problematic as things continue. Despite seeming to be present merely to disrupt things, the percussion actually provide the impetus for a greater sense of both stability and direction, laying down the gauntlet, so to speak, by preparing a clear, consistent pulse. Before things really swing, however, the sharp angular shapes cast by the orchestra gradually assume a more lyrical demeanour—first on the strings, later on a trombone—and the work finally attains the epithets conductor Daniel Harding asserted beforehand, “wit and charm and elegance”. Read more

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A complete counterpoint to untold destruction: Ex Confusion – Too Late, They Are Gone

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Sometimes, timing changes everything. Tomorrow sees the release of a new EP from Japan’s Atsuhito Omori, better known as Ex Confusion, titled Too Late, They Are Gone. That a work of such sublime quietude from a Japanese artist should come at such a desperate time for that country—which has, in the space of a few days, become synonymous with violent destruction, brought to the brink of despair—lends the music an emotional weight that is, admittedly, extra-musical, but no less real for that. This is to take nothing away from Omori; the timing is entirely coincidental, and i was marvelling at its beauty for several days before the earth shook. But music has an uncanny ability to escape from the clutches of its creator, becoming more and other things to its listeners than they could ever have imagined.

At a little under 18 minutes, and despite its ambient ethereality, Omori’s material is kept focused, particularly through the three tracks at the EP’s epicentre. The opener, “Asking You Why” is contrastingly diaphanous, simple, drawn-out notes reverberating like distant brass through a dense fog. “I See You Breathe” continues in a similar vein, although higher, with a more mobile tonal centre, rocking back and forth beneath soft dissonances that are gently mesmerising. The title track swiftly follows, bringing an abrupt change of texture, more static, resonating outwards from a fixed central cluster. Despite the lack of anything approximating bass, it’s a rich, even slightly heady soundworld; occasional notes protrude sharply out, but their shimmer prevents them from jarring on the ear, adding to the entrancingly hypnotic tone that pervades this track. Read more

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The familiar and the strange playing together as friends: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

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As an occasion, Valentine’s Day is polarising enough, split between they who regard it with importance, and those for whom it’s little more than an overhyped, vacuous sham. But that polarisation was exacerbated further on this particular Valentine’s Day, bringing as it did Radiohead‘s announcement that their eighth album, The King of Limbs, would be forthcoming just a few days later. It’s surprising that so many music sites and blogs have been so precipitate in their quest to get out the earliest possible review (The Telegraph‘s Neil McCormick, as usual, being the most egregious; his track-by-track “review”, written on the day of release, was pointless, cliché-ridden doggerel)—Radiohead have demonstrated more times than most that their output takes no little time to speak, and even longer to be heard. In October last year, when i wrote my 10-year retrospective of Kid A, i couldn’t help feeling it had taken much of that decade to make sufficiently meaningful inroads to the material; from that perspective, to be responding to The King of Limbs barely more than a fortnight after its release seems absurdly premature. But the dust has finally begun to settle, and now one can at least start to try to make sense of those first impressions. Read more

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