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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Dave Price – Twitcher

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The next miniature work in my Lent Series is something a little different from the norm. Dave Price uses an array of game calls and bird whistles in conjunction with a piccolo to create his taut, playful and at times downright hilarious three-minute Twitcher.

Those of a prog rock disposition may find Pink Floyd’s Several Species of Small Furry Animals coming to mind during the work’s long opening section, cycling rhythmic ideas hocketed left and right with all manner of unexpected punctuations, embellishments and hiatuses. After about 80 seconds, everything gets significantly cranked up: the metre becomes shorter and seemingly quicker and there’s less overall sense of rhythmic control, finally leading to a prolonged eruption of wild wails, squeals and ratchet bursts. Price lets out all the pent-up tension with a violent bang, whereupon the piece discovers an altogether new kind of order, the piccolo articulating a Latin-like melody, the music no longer twitching but swaying and dancing to a close. Read more

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Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mix tape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mix tape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – Unbroken Circle

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The next of my Lent Series miniatures is Unbroken Circle, a four-minute piece for alto flute, bass clarinet, viola, cello and piano by Peter Maxwell Davies. It was composed in 1984, a year that would prove to be an anguished one for Max: his mother, Hilda, had a severe stroke midway through the year (from which she would never recover, dying nearly two years later) and his father, Tom, perhaps in response to this, collapsed and died a few months later, on Christmas Eve. Unbroken Circle slightly predates these twin tragedies, receiving a private first performance on 1 June of that year (in Bath, where the work’s dedicatee, William Glock, was being awarded an honorary doctorate; the public première took place on 30 November), yet the distinct air of soft melancholy that permeates the work seems to foreshadow the events that were soon to come. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Double Hocket

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Brevity may well be the soul of wit, but the challenges it raises from the perspective of the listener can be considerable. Everything becomes ultra-compact: no sooner has an idea been presented then we’re on to another – or, more usually in this context, a different facet of the existing one – with little or no time to join the dots and reflect. Regardless of the music’s actual momentum, it can sound like a sprint, the work’s double barline already in view as the piece begins, and we can feel forced to race to keep up. That’s particularly true, i think, of the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, Harrison Birtwistle’s Double Hocket for piano trio, composed ten years ago in 2007. One can only imagine that hearing this in a concert – or, more specifically, hearing it just once (not that there’s any excuse for that, considering its length) – might well prove somewhat unrewarding, an aural equivalent of being vigorously prodded with knitting needles for two minutes. However, there’s an interesting little drama taking place within the Double Hocket, though if you’re not careful it might take your eye out.  Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Spring 2017

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There are lots of exciting events coming up in the next few months, approaching new music from a plethora of different angles.

Next month the Royal Opera House will be giving the first UK performances of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Buñuel’s splendidly off-kilter movie. Premièred last summer in Salzburg, it’ll be receiving half a dozen performances at Covent Garden from late April to Early May. With a libretto by Tom Cairns, featuring the likes of (among many others) Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice, Sophie Bevan, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, and directed by the composer, it should prove quite a spectacle. Well over a decade after witnessing the first performance of Adès’ last opera, The Tempest, i’m still somewhat in two minds about it, so it’ll be fascinating to see where he’s coming from in this new operatic work.

The Another Timbre label is taking over Café Oto for three days at the start of May, with a series of concerts to tie-in with their new five-disc set of music by Canadian Composers (a review of these is coming soon). Works by Linda Catlin Smith, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Marc Sabat, Martin Arnold and Chiyoko Szlavnics will all be featured in these concerts, plus a couple of pieces by fellow Canadian Cassandra Miller and not-remotely-Canadian Jürg Frey. Tickets are £8 a pop or £21 for the lot.

Looking ahead to July, the details of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival have been announced this week. The festival’s engagement with contemporary music – which, let’s remember, was its original purpose – has become highly tenuous in recent years, but there’s one or two concerts to look forward to. At the safer end of the spectrum, Estonia’s E STuudio Chamber Choir will be showing there’s more to their country than just Arvo Pärt, also featuring music by Estonians Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time with Estonian music during the last year, this is going to be good (though, fair warning, you’ll also need to contend with some Whitacre). Pianist William Howard is performing a recital titled ‘Love Songs’, including works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Piers Hellawell, Howard Skempton, Joby Talbot, Judith Weir and Michael Zev Gordon, a number of them receiving first performances. Joby Talbot’s music is also being performed by vocal ensemble Tenebrae, presenting his hour-long Path of Miracles. And towards the end of the festival, the Piatti Quartet will be presenting music by Joseph Phibbs and Mark-Anthony Turnage plus a new work from Darren Bloom. There are other assorted new works dotted elsewhere, and as ever there’s the annual Composer Academy for early-career composers, this year being mentored by Michael Zev Gordon.

And there are some extremely interesting events beyond these shores. Next month, Louth Contemporary Music Society is presenting the world première of James Dillon‘s latest piece, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. A work for soprano and a small ensemble of five players, as the title implies Dillon has drawn on ancient texts attributed to Orpheus, alongside poetry from the father of the sonnet, Petrarch, Apollinaire and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The concert is being given by Crash Ensemble with soprano Peyee Chen, who will also be performing a rendition of the Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor (actually by Jennifer Walshe), of which Chen gave a fittingly weird and wonderful performance at last year’s Alba New Music festival. Taking place as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, on Ireland’s east coast, the concert is on Saturday 29 April in St Peter’s Church and tickets are a measly €10.

And in May there’ll be the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, which i’ll be experiencing for the first time. This year’s sextet of concerts is jam-packed with exciting propositions: i’m particularly looking forward to three premières: Brian Ferneyhough‘s Umbrations, The Tye Cycle by the Ardittis, Paul Hübner and the JACK Quartet performing Timothy McCormack‘s Your Body is a Volume and Clara Iannotta‘s piano and ensemble piece Paw-marks in wet cement. Above all, though, it’ll just be great to have the opportunity to encounter totally unexpected music from composers whose work is entirely unknown to me. That’s definitely not something we get sufficient opportunities to do in Britain.

Apropos: i’ll be heading off to Tallinn again early next month for the Estonian Music Days. The festival’s engagement with new music is exceptionally diverse and forward-looking, very much more so than we usually encounter here in the UK. Among this year’s highlights: vocal group Vox Clamantis who (foreshadowing E STuudio Chamber Choir’s Cheltenham gig) will also be performing Pärt and Kreek, together with a new work from Galina Gregorieva; the first performance of Peeter Vähi‘s An April Night’s Dream for keyboards, percussion, phonogram and city sounds will be taking place in the late evening on the roof of the Estonian National Opera house(!); and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir will be giving a thoroughly eclectic concert of works by Jonathan HarveyLigeti and Sciarrino alongside premières from local composers Tatjana Kozlova-JohannesEvelin Seppar and Mirjam Tally. But i suspect the biggest highlight of all will be the event given by the country’s National Symphony Orchestra, in an all-Estonian programme featuring three world premières together with the Fourth Symphony by the great Lepo Sumera as well as Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s Cello Concerto. It’ll no doubt be absolutely exhausting, but wonderful. They really know how to do a music festival in Tallinn.

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