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 914 votes were cast, an increase of 16% 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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