HCMF revisited: James Dillon – Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’

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Scottish composer James Dillon is a regular fixture at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the last few years have included several of his larger-scale works. Of these, the performance of his Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’ at HCMF 2014 was one of the most striking, and has remained vividly in mind partly due to how difficult it seemed to parse, and as a consequence was a tricky piece to write about in my original review. The work isn’t performed often and no recording yet exists, so it’s one of a number of Dillon’s major works that remains in relative obscurity.

That’s unfortunate in any case, but particularly so because of the level of ambition Dillon brought to this piece. His long programme note describes the points of inspiration that led to the work’s subtitle, citing Greco-Roman mythology – Andromeda was the daughter of Celeus and Cassiopeia and personifies the dawn; like Prometheus, she was chained to a rock, eventually rescued by Perseus – and astronomy, referring both to the constellation (which was originally seen to represent Andromeda, and named ‘the chained woman’) as well as the galaxy – the nearest major galaxy to our own – that lies within it. Dillon also talks about the the legacy of the piano concerto idiom, describing the increasing emphasis on soloistic virtuosity that “remains one of its most attractive and repulsive features”, which perhaps explains why the pianist in his piece, save for a short opening cadenza, bears no resemblance to a conventional concerto soloist. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Marcin Stańczyk – some drops… (UK Première)

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Some make their journeys alone.
Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings.
They connect and they divide. This may seem unpredictable.
But you can guess which paths they will take.
In the end, most of them follow their forebears.
It’s gravity, apparently.

While some composers persist in providing lengthy diegetical tracts to explain their compositions, at HCMF 2016 Polish composer Marcin Stańczyk provided the above text to accompany the first UK performance of his piece some drops… for double-bell trumpet and ensemble. As i’ve got to know the work better since that first encounter, these words have made more and more sense. Stańczyk initially places the solo trumpet at the back of the space, behind the audience (“Some make their journeys alone”). But as the work progresses, the soloist slowly walks forward, eventually joining up with the rest of the ensemble, which is itself continually reforming into different groups (“Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings./They connect and they divide”).

The lines that then suggest that the apparent unpredictability can be guessed are, i think, more subtle than simply suggesting that we as listeners can work out what’s going to happen and when. That certainly isn’t the case, and to my mind this is more about the nature of the material being explored throughout the piece which, as i said in my original review, seems to be “teetering at the cusp of letting loose something warm and familiar”. This seemingly comes from nowhere, emerging in the wake of the work’s opening minutes where a strange pulse is set up, with sporadic single-note chirps from left and right. Is it sinister? vague? preparatory? Whatever it is, it’s at something of a distance until around three and a half minutes in, when the weird sense of a (neo-)romantic musical urge starts to exert itself, nothing more than a rising 3-note motif that might be the beginnings of a melody. Stańczyk ever-so-gently reinforces it with a pizzicato double bass, but it ends up becoming lost in the haze that characterises this portion of the piece.  Read more

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HCMF revisited: Michael Cutting – I AM A STRANGE LOOP V (World Première)

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In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.

It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint. Read more

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Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim – The Slow Creep of Convenience

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If you were to take Jakob Ullmann’s solo III for organ, Stefan Fraunberger’s Quellgeister series and Monty Adkins’ recent Shadows and Reflections and use them as the basis for a new composition, the result would probably closely resemble one of the most (if not the most) stunning releases i’ve heard so far this year: The Slow Creep of Convenience by Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim. Ullmann, Fraunberger and Adkins all utilise the organ as the basis for their long-form, slowly-evolving soundworlds, and while The Slow Creep of Convenience adds Veltheim’s electric violin to Pateras’ pipe organ, the two are so seamlessly blended that for much of its 50-minute duration it’s easy to hear the violin as an integral timbral extension of the organ. However, the main reason i cited those three works, aside from instrumental and durational considerations, is because of the way The Slow Creep of Convenience combines Ullmann’s determined patience, moving according to its own internal logic rather than external expectations or conventions of musical narrative, Fraunberger’s improvisatory unpredictability, responding to the sounds themselves rather than to a pre-planned scheme, and Adkins’ harmonic complexity, establishing a soundworld that at once both alludes to and undermines varying notions of tonality, remaining ever in flux. Read more

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Wandelweiser deals and mentoring

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Some Wandelweiser news. First, the label has set up a couple of juicy pre-order deals for their next round of releases, featuring works by Cyril Bondi, Hermann Meier, Eva-Maria Houben and Michael Winter: three CDs for €30, or all six for €50 (that’s £26 and £44 in real money). The deals are available until 3 December; details on the Wandelweiser website.

Second, the collective’s next ‘Composers Meet Composers’ mentoring project has just been announced. It’ll be taking place in Austria from 9–15 July 2018, with mentors Antoine Beuger, Joachim Eckl, Radu Malfatti, Michael Pisaro and Emmanuelle Waeckerle, and apparently “each participant spends one full day with each of the mentors”, which i guess implies there’ll only be space for a handful of people to take part. The fee is €800 (£714) all in; more info is here.

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Monty Adkins – Shadows and Reflections

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An interesting aspect of what i’ve been calling ‘steady statism‘ is the relationship it has with the idea of stasis. What is a musical stasis? Considering that music unfolds in time, isn’t it an oxymoronic idea? Furthermore, is such a hypothetical stasis intentional (objective) or perceptional (subjective) – or both? When writing about Markus Reuter’s Falling for Ascension, i remarked about one of the fundamental characteristics of steady statism: behavioural stasis, where the music changes over time but its underlying mode of operation – the compositional processes that lead to the musical material – remains essentially static, a system out of which musical outcomes emerge. More recently, i’ve been reflecting on the other kind, perceptional stases, where the emphasis is on extreme stillness of utterance, which may or may not be (or appear to be) the product of a behavioural stasis.

A striking example of this can be heard on Monty AdkinsShadows and Reflections, released a couple of months ago on the Crónica label. This album was one i’d been anticipating for a while; Adkins spoke about it briefly during the Dialogue we recorded together in the spring, explaining how it was inspired in part by the process of painter Gerhard Richter:

…it’s the way in which he chooses certain types of colours on his squeegee, and then draws them very slowly down the canvas. So one of the things i’ve been working on recently is how you could actually compose very short fragments of material and then slow them down, and then, as he does, layer them on top of one another. So i’ve just finished a long, 40-minute piece, and that piece is made up of six three-minute pieces, and what I did was slow those pieces down, just as Richter would take very specific parts of the paint, and then slowly draw those across and add extra layers on the canvas. So that piece was drawn out of the technique of his paintings. [… It has] no gesture in it at all, which is quite unusual for me […] it does go somewhere but it’s pushing that to the absolute extreme: out of forty minutes, the main thing happens at thirty-two minutes. And I find, [when] you get to that point, there’s almost a sense of ecstasy.

This latter aspect is a familiar Adkins trope, one i’ve remarked upon numerous times previously, where the timing of a gesture or sound is not merely pivotal but transformative, making one reappraise much if not all that went before. But my anticipation for Shadows and Reflections was particularly piqued by the idea of it being essentially bereft of gesture, suggesting an altogether more ‘flat’ sonic journey. Read more

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Haunted but undaunted, fading yet indefatigable: The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time – Stages 2 & 3

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Appropriately enough, considering this evening is Hallowe’en, i began today being haunted by ghosts. To explain: in the early hours, not sufficiently drowsy to return to sleep yet too somnolent even to begin contemplating getting out of bed, i grabbed my headphones and groped blearily on my device for something to listen to. As it turned out, these peculiar, potentially unpromising conditions could hardly have been more perfect for the album that my fingers alighted on: Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 3 by Leyland Kirby’s occasional pseudonym The Caretaker, released a couple of weeks ago. As the title suggests, the work is the latest in Kirby’s ongoing project exploring aspects of memory and dementia.

Much of the music put out over the last ten-or-so years that one might broadly describe as hauntological is problematic. Born from an apparent wave of retromaniacal enthusiasm for tapping into the supposedly mysterious darkness and sinister undertones of an ill-defined ‘past’ (some of which only appear sinister from a contemporary perspective; they never seemed such at the time), the results often comport themselves as ersatz memoradelic mash-ups, counterfeit, superficial musical worlds fashioned from borrowed tropes and mannerisms. It’s cheap and it’s childish, and while there’s no need to name specific names, the Ghost Box Records label has a lot to answer for in fostering it. There are exceptions, of course, lots of them, but what sets Leyland Kirby’s work so far above and beyond almost everything else done in hauntology’s name is its authenticity.

i first got to know Kirby’s music in the mid-2000s, first through Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia, his dazzling 3-hour 2005 survey of disintegrated sonic echoes, consolidated the following year in his gigantic project The Death of Rave (about which i’ve written previously), a 19-hour “audio soup of half remembered rave anthems” that through its seemingly never-ending sequence of noise-caked movements encapsulated an era by channelling subliminal, subconscious and submerged musical memories. Personally speaking, The Death of Rave was a turning point in my relationship with Kirby’s music in two respects. Read more

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Jasun Martz – A Retrospective: Non-Finito, Alchemy, Corrosion, Chroma, The Pillory, The Battle

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Another unusual release i’ve received recently came from Jasun Martz, a US musician and artist of whom i was previously unaware, but a quick search online reveals has apparently been involved in music for almost 50 years, with a variety of both classical and pop/rock connections. What i received consisted of six discs – Non-Finito, Alchemy, Corrosion, Chroma, The Pillory and The Battle, released through January to July this year as an in-depth retrospective of Martz’s output – together with a poster and an original painting by Martz, upon which is attached a ‘Certificate of Art Appraisal’, confidently informing me that its appraised value is no less than $15,000. Ch-ching! The discs are housed in slim digipaks, fronted with further paintings by Martz (all self portraits), and their respective album titles are all prefixed by the phrase ‘Solo Exhibition’, implying that each disc is in fact the sonic component of an audiovisual work (of which the cover may or may not constitute the only visual element). So far, so relatively straightforward.

However, progressing through these six discs it quickly becomes apparent that their contents are connected, with various titles recurring on different albums in partial or completely different forms. So the listening experience has a secondary layer of detective work, puzzling over and deducing the connections between these different manifestations. By the end, i can honestly say they’re easily among the most convoluted interconnecting and overlapping collection of pieces that i’ve yet encountered. Part of that convolution is, depending on your perspective, unnecessary, and there’s a certain amount of duplication – even redundancy – but Martz has clearly aimed to make each disc as long as possible (they’re between 68 and 79 minutes’ duration), and while the discs together constitute Martz’s retrospective – a larger 8-CD box set will also be available at the start of next year – each disc also acts as a smaller-scale retrospective, focusing on specific aspects of his output (in theory; in practice the distinctions are negligible). Read more

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Jeroen Diepenmaat – Double Landscape

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One of the more unusual items to have arrived at my door recently is Double Landscape, by Dutch “visual artist with a preference for sound” Jeroen Diepenmaat. It’s unusual insofar as it comes in the form of a small plastic wallet containing a small business card CDr – which contains just a single track, lasting just a few minutes – together with a fold-out inlay card with drawings of cassette-like images and a download code. It would have been a lot of work to go to for just a few minutes of music, and indeed the download reveals the actual entirety of the album: 84 tracks (the CDr containing just one of them) lasting a little over five hours. That’s a lot of music, but it doesn’t take long to realise that there’s a theme at play here, one that draws connections with both the Roland Kayn box set i reviewed earlier this week as well as the examples of ‘steady state’ music discussed recently.

The Kayn connection is twofold. First, each of the 84 movements is a paradigm of the whole; the way each one behaves is, essentially identical, though the specific details are unique. Second, the range of materials used is relatively small, establishing a strong relationship between the different pieces, which are, in essence, sonic siblings. More on this in a moment. The ‘steady state’ connection is to do with this behavioural commonality, involving pairs of cycling loops. These loops are derived from a recording of Diepenmaat playing piano; this was split into seven tape loops, inserted into physical cassettes, which were then combined in pairs. Double Landscape is the product of the various possible combinations of these pairs. The cycling process of these loops quickly establishes in each piece a steady state, one that – unlike most of the examples discussed previously – has a distinct ambient quality, the resultant musical texture resulting from the coincidental ways in which the details of each loop impinge against each other. Both the serendipity of the process and the physicality of the medium are important to Diepenmaat, as he explains:

I like coincidence, so I made the rules to let the coincidence work. Besides the combinations, due to small differences in tape length the sounds move towards/apart from each other. Also tape hiss and the wear of the tape is audible in some of the tracks. I like it when it is alive like that.

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Singular, ingenious, historic: Roland Kayn – A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound

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From a certain perspective our galaxy, the Milky Way, could be described as being ‘little’. However, with a diameter of up to 180,000 light years across, comprising as many as 400 billion stars, that perspective would be a decidedly rarefied one, viewing things, both figuratively and literally, on an astronomical scale. One gets the impression that German composer Roland Kayn looked upon sound in a similarly rarefied way. Certainly, approaching Kayn’s newly-released 2009 cycle A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound, a veritable sonic galaxy comprising 22 movements that last a little under 14 hours, necessitates getting one’s ears and mind around an altogether different kind of organisational perspective.

My relationship with Kayn’s music stretches back many years. First contact was around the turn of the millennium, while studying at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague, where Kayn had worked during its time in Utrecht, in the early 1970s, and whose name – along with that of Gottfried Michael Koenig – was spoken of not quite in hushed tones, but with a real sense of admiration, even awe. These fleeting encounters were consolidated by the marvellous CD reissue of Kayn’s Tektra, a five-hour work completed in 1982. Since then, i’ve got to know many more works, both via rips of old vinyl records that can be found online as well as some of the Reiger-records-reeks discs that were released during the late nineties and early noughties, and i’ve come to regard his output as among the most fascinating and significant of the last 70 years. He’s been featured on two of my mixtapes (#12 and #21) and a major electronic work of mine, Simulated Music, is dedicated to Kayn’s memory.

So for those who are interested to explore it, there’s a lot out there, now crowned by this sumptuous new sixteen-disc box set of A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound by the innovative Finland-based label Frozen Reeds. Yet it’s important to stress how extremely unknown Roland Kayn’s music remains, even to many of those directly involved in or otherwise knowledgeable about electronic music. Furthermore, despite the quantity of music that’s available, the amount of information and scholarly discourse about Kayn’s work is, to put it mildly, minimal (though the recently revamped Roland Kayn website has at last improved this situation a little). The reason for this is partly ignorance, of course, but perhaps as much to do with the fact that Kayn espoused a compositional approach (initially inspired by the philosopher Max Bense) that he termed ‘cybernetic’, where the composer’s involvement lay in systemically setting things up – sound possibilities, behavioural rules, etc. – but then allowing this system to go its own way. In one of his only published interviews (with Frans van Rossum), Kayn described the process and the envisaged result in this way:

The music becomes autonomous once the composer has no control over the direction it takes once he has set it in motion. […] No single composer, no matter the extent of his imagination, could conceive of this enormous variety of sounds, nor could he have conceived of the way they might be created, only the impulses which set the piece in motion can really be considered direct involvement by the composer. The result is because of purely autonomous processes.”

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Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio: Peter Eötvös – The Golden Dragon

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Let’s start at the end. It would be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking Peter Eötvös‘ music theatre piece The Golden Dragon, currently touring the UK in a production by Music Theatre Wales, as a serious, even moving piece. Or, rather, not mistaking it for that (few people, one hopes, are so easily duped), but feeling compelled to regard in that way, as by the end of its 90-minute duration the piece makes very clear that that is what was always intended. In some respects, the subject matter isn’t funny: an illegal immigrant worker – referred to as ‘The Little One’ (played by Llio Evans) – in the titular Asian restaurant develops an excruciating toothache, the tooth is forcefully extracted by the chefs (Lucy Schaufer, Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford), The Little One bleeds profusely and dies, and his body is then chucked into a river. But don’t misunderstand me: when i say the subject matter isn’t funny – and it really isn’t – that’s not because, by contrast, it’s serious either. Everything about the narrative – which is derived from an original play by Roland Schimmelpfennig – is ludicrous to the point of absurdity. Apropos: the work’s primary thread is embellished with various secondary ones of varying frivolity, concerning a pair of stewardesses having a meal, a granddaughter becoming pregnant to the enraged indignation of her boyfriend, and – i’m really not making this up – an ant acting as a pimp, sexually exploiting a cricket. Read more

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Altered (steady) states: Kenneth Kirschner – September 27, 2016/November 17, 2016, Markus Reuter – Falling for Ascension, Formuls – entryiseasierthantheexit_exit

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A few years ago, when writing an extensive monograph on the music of Kenneth Kirschner, i used the term ‘steady state’ to indicate the particular way in many of his works that material is deployed and juxtaposed over extended periods of time. This latter aspect, extended time, is vital: both as a compositional approach and a listening experience, it could be described as ‘macrospective’; what happens moment by moment is of secondary importance to its long-term structural dimension. However, what makes ‘steady statism’ – to coin a phrase – so engaging is the way we as listeners are pulled back and forth between focusing on the short- and long-term actions of the music, ever aware of its essential open-endedness yet nonetheless engaged by the shifting, possibly transient, ways it is manifested on the surface.

Steady statism has connections (roots even) to, among other things, 20th century US experimentalism and ambient music, two areas that have had and continue to have significant influence on contemporary music-making. In Kirschner’s case, it remains a key part of his musical language, demonstrated in several of his most recent works (all of which are available for free download from his website). In September 27, 2016, it’s articulated via widely-spaced miniature gestures – emanating from what sounds like piano, violin, vibraphone and/or glockenspiel: possibly real, probably synthetic – each one comprising a single pitch held for a short time. Not all of the instruments play in each gesture, and the length the pitches are held is not precisely exact in each instrument, but that’s by the by; the process the work undergoes is a simple, solemn statement of these micro-ideas, each one allowed to sound for only a few seconds before the music disappears back into the darkness. The silences are roughly between 20 and 40 seconds’ duration, meaning that most of September 27, 2016 is silent, yet to my mind this only gives each of these sonic motes more potency. And there are surprises too, such as when, nine minutes in, there suddenly appear to be many more string instruments present than we suspected. Fascinating and beautiful. Read more

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Mixtape #40 : Miniatures

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Even more than is usually the case, the new 5:4 Mixtape is a pure stream of consciousness. i’ve returned to a theme i explored in one of the earliest mixtapes, miniatures, once again setting myself a limit of music lasting under two minutes. With a shortlist of 100+ tracks (each one a personal favourite), i then simply followed my nose, treating them as puzzle pieces for a newly-created jigsaw, or perhaps more accurately as tessera for an eccentric aural mosaic. As usual, they embrace a mixture of new and old, and stylistically it’s all over the place, though its narrative was entirely suggested by the material, sometimes dovetailing or morphing, elsewhere successive tracks acting as rude non sequiturs. Along the way you’ll encounter abrasion (Alejandro Jodorowsky, Naked CityBenjamin Wallfisch (whose IT soundtrack is gleefully insane), aTelecine), playfulness (Syd Dale, Andrew Liles, Camille), moody atmospheres (Laura Sheeran, SupersilentVangelisOlga Neuwirth, Beacon, Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek, Alva Noto, Ben Lukas Boysen), edgy lyricism (Zola Jesus, Elsiane, Gazelle Twin, Clark, Jenny Hval), convoluted beats (Don DavisZavoloka & AGFThe Flashbulb, Derek K Jeppsen, Shad[]wb[]x, Ryoji Ikeda), drama of various hues (James Newton HowardPeter AblingerVeli-Matti PuumalaClaude Vivier), dreamy ambient (Bad Loop, The Real Tuesday WeldCliff MartinezGet Well SoonMonty AdkinsAphex Twin), rich tonal yum (Marcel Dupré, Carpenters, Cyrillus KreekTõnu Kõrvits) and various other electronic, experimental or otherwise unconventional amuse-bouches (Francis DhomontFrank ZappaNicolas ObouhowAndrew Lloyd Webber (yes, really), Sophie, Steve LevineJohn ZornKenneth Kirschner). And all of this in just one hour.

48 tiny tracks ranging in duration from 1’59” to a mere 26 seconds. Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music. As ever, the mix can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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New releases: Paul Dolden – Histoire d’histoire, Annette Vande Gorne – Yawar Fiesta

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Nobody – but nobody – makes music that sounds like Paul Dolden. His work typically exhibits unchecked exuberance, both his instrumental and electronic (and electroacoustic) music not merely firing on all cylinders, but with their inner workings ludicrously pimped and their processors absurdly overclocked, sounds and timbres piled on top of each other in extremis. His latest disc, Histoire d’histoire, on the Canadian acousmatic label empreintes DIGITALes, is therefore interesting as in many respects it shows considerable restraint. Much of the disc is devoted to Dolden’s five-movement work Music of Another Present Era, completed last year, in which he sets out to create a kind of deliberately inauthentic ethnographic artefact. Dolden uses our lack of knowledge about the music of ancient cultures to construct a free-wheeling flight of fancy, employing a “metaphoric use of myths” as inspiration rather than seeking to fabricate a pointless (and impossible) ersatz ‘reconstruction’. This imagined historical survey perhaps accounts in part for the demonstrable delicacy shown in this piece. Yet even from the opening moments, it’s unequivocally Dolden: microtonally unique instruments – implying the lack of a coherent, codified tuning scheme – wheeze into life as though summoning up their energy only with considerable effort, presenting a unified but ‘doddery’ demeanour. This is how first movement ‘Marsyas’ Melodies’ begins (evoking the Phrygian Satyr who was supposedly the first to create music for the flute), eventually restarting in order to find some clarity, whereupon Dolden’s characteristic dense polyphony swells up, leading to Zappa-esque florid percussion and strangely agile stodge. Flutes are featured even more in third movement ‘Entr’acte’, in which a solid chorus of them is created, so compacted that they constantly clash and jostle and scrape against each other to the point where they can hardly move. Read more

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Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

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i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 1,096 votes were cast, an increase of 17% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted. Read more

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Proms 2017: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

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After eight weeks of (for the most part) serious music-making, the Last Night of the Proms, quite reasonably, is primarily disposed to the aim of letting of steam and just having fun. For the contemporary composer chosen to get the evening going each year, the enormous sense of occasion – even more so than at the first night – must be so impossible to ignore (and why would you?) that one can’t help wondering to what extent they feel their creativity is being given an opportunity to shine or simply go through the expected motions. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, from the 1995 Proms, remains a benchmark for ruthless originality in this concert, though it’s worth remembering that that particular piece was not a concert-opener, but occupied a prime position later in the concert. How nice it would be if the tradition of commissioning a world première for the last night could return to being a more major work in the concert rather than the amuse-bouche that the Proms seems to believe is sufficient. Perhaps then composers could do their own thing both more expansively and in the way they’d really like, although the experience and aftermath of Panic may well have scared off the Proms organisers for good on that score. (Apropos: i wonder what would shock people today?)

Nonetheless, one or two of the commissions in recent years – i’m thinking particularly of Tom Harrold’s Raze (2016) and Mark Simpson’s Sparks (2012) – have demonstrated the capacity and the courage to try and squeeze some imagination into their tiny sliver of the evening. And the same was true of last night’s curtain-raiser, Flounce, by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Lotta Wennäkoski

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This evening, Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski‘s new work Flounce will literally become the beginning of the end, getting started the Last Night of the Proms. For the final time this year then, here are my pre-première questions, together with Wennäkoski’s answers and her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Lotta for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Missy Mazzoli – Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (European Première); Catherine Lamb – Prisma Interius V; Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – The Minutes (World Premières)

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The last three Proms premières, though very different in some respects, shared some important things in common. All of them, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Prisma Interius V by Catherine Lamb and The Minutes by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, eschew silence and focus primarily on harmonic movement – or, more specifically, on the (juxta)positioning of pitches to harmonic ends. In tandem with this, they also all broadly adopt an approach that treats the performance space as a vessel into which sound is poured.

For Missy Mazzoli, the space was, literally, space, her music cast “in the shape of a solar system” (her words). The piece began life in 2013, in a version for chamber orchestra that she later expanded to full orchestra, and which was first performed in February last year. Drawing on the double-meaning of ‘sinfonia’, which in Italian used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, this can be felt in the way pitches are drawn-out and sustained and slide, and in the small ornamental embellishments (ever so slightly redolent of James MacMillan) that are quickly established to be one of the work’s most characteristic musical elements. In its own particular way, the music clearly wants to sing – its melodic urge is paramount – but the way it does this is always in relation to and as a somewhat secondary consideration to its harmonic foundation, which is mobile yet attracted to certain fundamentals, drifting between poles of tonal certitude. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Catherine Lamb

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Concert halls be damned! Tonight the Proms makes another of its peripatetic excursions beyond the confines of the Royal Albert Hall, paying a first visit to The Tanks at Tate Modern. Among the music being performed will be the world première of Prisma Interius V by experimental American composer Catherine Lamb. To get you whetted and prepped, here are her responses to my pre-première questions, along with a programme note for her piece. Many thanks to Catherine for her answers.
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