Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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On Wednesday, the Dark Music Days moved out of Reykjavík to the arts centre of Hafnarborg in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður, where the Icelandic Guitar Trio – Þórarinn Sigurbergsson, Þröstur Þorbjörnsson and Svanur Vilbergsson – gave a recital featuring three native works alongside music from the UK and USA.

The Icelandic pieces shared a general tendency towards the conservative and traditional. This was most demonstrably the case in Fimm Skissur [Five Sketches] by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, composed in 2016 but only now receiving its first performance. Everything about it felt rooted in convention, from the fast-slow alternations of its movements to the language of its lyricism, which veered between cheerful Classical simplicity and a more intricate Baroque tendency. The piece was most interesting in the two slow movements where the music sounded least like an exercise in pastiche. The Andante won me over due to the fastidiousness of its counterpoint, which proved hypnotic, while the Lento exhibited a soft delicacy that was particularly lovely at its dying away conclusion. The rest was simply too generic and impersonal to make any kind of meaningful connection. Ari Hálfdán Aðalgeirsson‘s Gaia, another première, was also characterised by fastidiously-composed material, as if each and every note had been positioned and aligned with the greatest care – though never sounding remotely finicky or theoretical. The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping one’s expectations. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: The Riot Ensemble

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It could hardly be more perfect that the 2019 Dark Music Days – Iceland’s premier contemporary music festival – should have begun last Saturday in complete darkness. This was in Reykjavík’s Nordic House, where the most valiant effort had been made to block out every trace of light for The Riot Ensemble’s world première performance of Georg Friedrich Haas‘ 70-minute Solstices.

Darkness has been a recurring feature of Haas’ work in recent years, from the sporadic lights-out episodes of in vain to the complete blackout of String Quartet No. 10. Every time it occurs in a composition, one is forced to deal with, or at last come to terms with, the darkness, and this was a significant preoccupation during the first few minutes of Solstices. I found myself considering the fact that I often listen with my eyes closed during concerts, and the extent to which this differed from the darkness being imposed on me. But of course there is a huge difference, not just physical but psychological, between simply closing our eyes (thereby shutting down that sense) and having our eyes open but receiving nothing back.

The second thing I found I had to deal with was the technical achievement happening before me: ten musicians, performing in total darkness and therefore, by necessity, entirely from memory. That’s somewhat mind-blowing of itself. It made me think of other artistic technical achievements – such as the long take camera work of Hitchcock or Alejandro Iñárritu – that also have the capacity, if we (and the artists) aren’t careful, to distract from and take us out of the art being created, due to the surprise and incredulity that they cause. Read more

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Free internet music: Wixel

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Wim Maesschalk, better known as Wixel, is a Belgian musician who originally set up the label Slaapwel Records, the aim of which, as that name implies, is to provide “music to fall asleep to”. In a way that tells you all you need to know about Wixel, though his music is capable of a whole lot more than just sending one to sleep. His output isn’t large, and for the most part consists of his ‘2009 Project’, a series of 12 mini-albums he released a decade ago, each one on the last day of the month. Though these releases weren’t put out by Slaapwel their connection to sleep is extremely strong, and indeed one of the things i find most fascinating about them is that they don’t merely sound designed to accompany that unique kind of somnolent whooziness, but in many cases sound as if they were actually created in that very state. What this means is that the music has a tendency to veer quite sharply between grabbing one’s attention and seeming completely disinterested in doing anything more than just lethargic rambling. Such a division as that sounds pretty close to Brian Eno’s ‘interesting/ignorable’ dichotomy, and indeed Maesschalk wrote the following in his introduction to the fourth album in the series, Slaapliedjes [Lullabies], with regard to the practice (and difficulties) of utilising processes to aid creativity:

Trying to make good music every day of the week can be quite frustrating. Especially because you know it is impossible to make 12 records full with excellent melodies and sounds. … Suddenly I had the idea to forget about melodies, about rhythm, about shaping sounds. The only thing that would determine these songs is the density of notes and the choice of the instruments. … The consequence is that all [the] songs are very different, yet they sound very alike. … They all look very very similar, but they’re all quite unique. … All [the] songs are also part of my idea about “slaapwel records” music. They shouldn’t carry too many stories, but should reside on the thin line between pretty and boring.

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Free internet music: Zbigniew Karkowski

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One of my absolute favourites at the most extreme end of pretty much all musical continua is Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski. Karkowski died just over five years ago, and digesting his legacy is something i’ve been attempting to do since his passing. While there are plenty of available recordings of his work, concert performances in the UK are exceedingly rare. Graham McKenzie prominently featured his work at HCMF in 2015 and 2017, and both occasions served as a marvellous demonstration of the unique combination of intricate subtlety and enormous overload that typify Karkowski’s music. Performances of Karkowski easily rank among the most beautiful and overwhelming musical experiences i’ve ever had, and one can only hope that similarly open-minded concert curators might programme his work more often in future.

Live in Lyon is an unedited 23-minute recording of one of Karkowski’s performances. The fact that it’s unedited is significant, as it highlights from time to time the way in which Karkowski wrangled with both the technology and the sound materials themselves, and the occasional dropouts and glitches that occur in no way sound like ‘mistakes’ but only add to the overall effect of the performance. Discussing Karkowski’s music to an extent necessitates looking broadly rather than at minutiae. It tends to unfold slowly, generally favouring evolution and transformation rather than abrupt cuts and shifts, and an important factor in engaging with it is the way one gradually becomes familiar with its discrete sound elements, a familiarity that Karkowski often makes crushingly intimate. Read more

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Free internet music: The Missing Ensemble

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The Missing Ensemble was a US trio comprising Daniel De Los Santos, John Sellekaers and Mathias Delplanque, who together released two albums around 13 years ago. i forget where the recommendation to listen to their music came from all those years ago, but i do remember that one of the things that instantly drew me towards it was the cover art of their first album, Hidden Doors (2006), which featured a painting by an artist i had long admired, Ray Caesar.

Caesar’s art is beautiful and unsettling, and that’s not a bad description for Hidden Doors, a four-part journey through a soundscape that’s simultaneously stable – even, at times, borderline stagnant – yet with an omnipresent sense of threat. The first part sets up two layers of sound, one of which is positioned in the middleground, and consists of quiet, slightly glitchy burbling. The second layer involves various pitches being emphatically extruded in the foreground, sometimes piercing or juddering, other times acting in a more circumspect manner, lurking nearby. The relative strength of these two layers continually varies and wavers though extremely slowly, gently altering the depth and focus of the music. In the second and third parts there’s more of a sense of diverse elements being brought together. In the relatively brief Part II, there’s a sense of metamorphosis, of these elements combining to form something new. In less than three minutes it becomes a beautiful but strange, multi-faceted texture in which pitch and noise collide and jostle, as if it were reforming and breaking apart constantly. Read more

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