James Gardner – Ten Bells for Turning Forty (World Première)

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Delving into the very deepest recesses of the 5:4 archive, another première performance i’ve been enjoying recently is by British-born, New Zealand-based composer James Gardner. His Ten Bells for Turning Forty for clarinet and percussion dates as far back as 2001, composed as a 40th birthday present for clarinettist Andrew Sparling, who with Julian Warburton gave the first performance the following year at a concert by Ensemble Exposé (remember them?) as part of the Cutting Edge weekend given at the BMIC (remember that?).

The way the piece is performed brings to mind another work for clarinet, Boulez’ Domaines, involving an unspecified order in which fragments of music are to be played. Unlike Domaines, not all of the material needs to be performed; from a total of 22 fragments, the clarinettist selects ten (chosen according to Gardner’s carefully prescribed rules) that are then almost entirely left up to the player to determine their order. The content of these fragments varies wildly (one of them is shown below; it occurs in the performance at 0:46) and choice of clarinet(s) is left up to the performer too, though they’re encouraged to use several “to increase timbral variety”. The percussionist uses tubular bells and three drums, small, medium and large, and their part, also comprising ten fragments, is not indeterminate but performed according to a fixed, specified order. The clarinettist is also instructed to perform at up to four different positions, selected “via chance operations of the player’s devising”. Read more

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John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

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i’ve been exploring the extensive 5:4 archive of recordings of premières recently, listening to both brand new and older works, and was pretty startled to encounter Cantus mysticus, by the late John Tavener. A work for clarinet and soprano soloists with a string orchestra of violins and cellos, it was composed in 2004, first performed the following year at the Cuenca Religious Music Week, in Spain. Three years later it received its UK première at the Proms, and in 2010 its first performance in the USA, but for the last seven years it’s sat dormant. Considering Tavener’s popularity both during his latter years and since his death, this seems strange – particularly as Cantus mysticus lasts only eight minutes – though it possibly has something to do with the very peculiar nature of the piece.

For much of the last two decades of his life, Tavener’s compositional practice was relatively standardised and predictable. If it had anything approximating an evolution, it was more to do with extra-musical than musical concerns, as Tavener shifted somewhat away from the more tangible (i.e. readily explainable) aspects of religious dogma in favour of ‘esoteric metaphysics’. (This evolution would finally move into an intense exploration of human suffering in the wake of Tavener’s own close call with death in 2007.) Personally speaking, this late shift came as something of a relief, though primarily because the particular combination of the abstract and the abstruse embodied within esoteric metaphysics render it far more inert (and that’s really not intended as a euphemism for ‘meaningless’) than Tavener’s more ostentatiously overt theological outlook of earlier years. Put more crudely – though no less accurately – this shift removed some of the unctuous sanctimoniousness of those earlier works, which from an extra-musical perspective, makes them very much more palatable. Read more

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New (Nordic) releases: Vilde&Inga, Nordic Affect, Trio Aristos, Iceland Symphony Orchestra

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There’s been a number of very interesting new releases recently featuring composers and performers from the Nordic countries. At the most unconventional end of the spectrum are violinist Vilde Sandve Alnæs and double bassist Inga Margrete Aas, a Norwegian duo who perform free-improvised music together as Vilde&Inga. Their new album Silfr, released last month on the experimental Sofa label, features ten pieces that demonstrate the fascinating way the duo utilises their instruments to explore a single idea. This in itself is quite refreshing. So much contemporary music seeks to cram shedloads of invention into even relatively short works that to hear such a single-minded approach as that on Silfr is somewhat novel, even courageous. The most extreme pieces are so unwavering as to seem almost behaviourally solipsistic. ‘Røykkvarts’ (“smoky quartz”) comprises an essentially unpitched texture of assorted scratchings and scrapings – so anonymous it’s hard to tell it’s being executed on string instruments at all – with occasional pizzicato pitches allowed to resonate. Though ostensibly more rapid, ‘Sprø Glimmer’ (“crazy glimmer”) is similar, placing high, unstoppable, glistening arpeggiations against an only slightly less intense tremolando, riddled with overtones, while ‘Aurum’ is located in weak, bleak territory, the instruments barely able to speak to the point that the background ambience becomes a distinct presence in its own right. The title piece is the most immersive of these, setting up a moto perpetuo of tremolandi and ricochets, stretching out notes at various points until the whole thing has its pitch content erased towards the end, culminating in the noise of frantic physical movements. Fantastic. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 3)

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i mentioned in Part 1 that much of the music at this year’s Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik was either for or revolved around the string quartet. But there was also a collection of works (including three i unfortunately missed due to not being able to stay for the final concert) composed for more diverse instrumental groupings. All of them packed the most almighty wallop, though in the case of Ondřej Adámek‘s Conséquences particulèrements blanches ou noires, one was left wondering whether the Czech composer really has anything new to say beyond wheeling out more iterations of his tired air machine. There’s more to his music than this machine, of course, though the puckish, flamboyant way Adámek utilises it – often clearly intended to be humorous – is by now exasperatingly over-familiar, and in any case, in this particular piece, the machine took centre stage – both musically and literally within the hall (something of a contrast to a piece like Korper und Seele, performed at Donauschingen in 2014, where it was for the most part used more peripherally). The overall tone came across like a movie created from nothing but a string of set pieces, with no narrative to string it all together. The relationship between the machine and the ensemble was essentially an imitative one, the latter picking up the blurts and farts of the former and turning them into a kind of avant-cartoon music. Yawn. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 2)

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In the late evening of the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik‘s opening day, inside the town’s small but elegantly decorated Johanniskirche, the JACK Quartet gave the world premières of a pair of works of an entirely different disposition from that of Ferneyhough and Birtwistle, heard earlier that afternoon.

Italian-Swiss composer Oscar Bianchi‘s Pathos of Distance essentially re-programs the string quartet such that the cello becomes a conspicuous rogue element. Through a mixture of whirling, clicking, whirring and croaking wald teufels (a.k.a. forest devils or, most appropriately, frog callers) and more protracted, harmonic- and tremolando-laden bowed materials, the upper strings were clearly well-disposed to work together, sharing and imitating. Whereas the cello – visually enhanced by Kevin McFarland’s unique attire, jacket-less with shirt sleeves rolled up – took on the role of ‘bovver boy’, grinding, twanging, buzzing and poinging his strings, de- and re-tuning them, often situated four or five octaves below the rest. Both the exploration of this relationship – which did vary, and at times all four players were clearly united – as well as Bianchi’s intricate and imaginative textural narrative were engrossing, right up until the somewhat ritualistic final minutes, including a wave of ‘roars’, a viola and cello duet (the viola now also detuned, and played with a cello bow!) and a concluding flurry of ratcheting. Thoroughly immersive and, in the best possible sense, entertaining. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music), Germany’s annual three-day blow out celebrating the newest iterations of the idiom. It was my first experience of the festival, and i have to say my initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The definition of ‘chamber music’ is treated with considerable flexibility, ranging from solo pieces to works for moderately large chamber orchestras, and the presentation and performance standard of the concerts – not surprisingly, considering its reputation – were never less than outstanding, staged in superb venues, showcasing some of the finest contemporary music specialists in the world. As for the music, which was hugely varied, for the most part the same could be said of the featured composers. For the most part. Read more

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St Peter’s Church, Drogheda: James Dillon – The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments (World Première)

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It shames me to admit that, until February this year, i’d never heard of Louth Contemporary Music Society. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous that i hadn’t: for the last seven-or-so years they’ve been putting on fascinating concerts featuring music by, among many others, Terry Riley, György Kurtág, John Zorn, David Lang, Sofia Gubaidulina, Michael Pisaro, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Tan Dun, Alvin Lucier and Éliane Radigue, performed by the likes of Musicircus, Kronos Quartet, Carducci Quartet, Ian Pace, Trio Mediaeval, Garth Knox and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as several of the aforementioned composers themselves. Not being aware of such fantastical goings-on seems entirely absurd. Yet on the other hand, not only is pretty much everyone i’ve spoken to about them in the last few months equally unaware of these concerts, i’ve not encountered any promotion or discussion about them in the usual new music places. Perhaps the shame lies elsewhere. Either way, it’s time to shout out loudly about what’s really going on on the east coast of Ireland, and it’s largely thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic one-man-bandery of Eamonn Quinn, co-founder and curator of LCMS, whose efforts have at last been celebrated with his being awarded the 2018 Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music (Alex Ross won the prize in 2012), a belated but very richly deserved acknowledgement of Quinn’s exceptionally open-minded and energetic approach to concert curation. Read more

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