Best Albums of 2012 (Part 2)

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The lists reduce the vastness into controllable sizes, into the size of things that can fit into our mind, where they can expand again to the size of everything. The list is the way of fitting everything in one place at one time, so that we can take it with us, so that we can fit it all inside a microchip, a chip we can then fit inside our soul. … The list is a code for everything we are, the list is a diagram, sometimes extremely slight and incomplete, sometimes unbelievably deep and complete, of eternity.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here we go, then, with the absolute pinnacle of this year’s albums, every one of them essential listening. Read more

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Best Albums of 2012 (Part 1)

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This is a list surrounded by other lists leading to other lists, lists … that explain everything by being gateways into worlds of sound, feeling and information…
…the love of making lists is an attempt to remind us of what it is that has happened, and what is happening, all at once, as time and humanity collapses into itself. …
The list is a collage of hopes and wishes, of knowledge and exhibitionism.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

So we move on to the list of lists, the forty albums that have made the greatest impact over the last twelve months. Here are the first twenty to have made the cut.

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Best EPs of 2012

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The list is what brings a world of chaos into some kind of pattern. The list fixes a broken world floating out into the outer world of emptiness. The list links us to ourselves, places us together, puts us in order. The list soothes us in the way it organises memory and shapes the consciousness. Everybody loves a list for making sense of the awesome nature of all the stuff that surrounds us. The list is at the heart of everything. Everything is part of a list. Humanity is one long list linking nothing with something.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Paul Morley telling it how it is, & as the year starts to fade away, it’s time once again for the series of lists detailing the best of the best that’s passed through my eardrums in the last 12 months. We begin, as ever, with the ten most outstanding EPs. Read more

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In Memoriam: Richard Rodney Bennett – Goodbye for Now

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2012 has almost drawn to a close, but not before claiming another prominent musical voice: Richard Rodney Bennett, who passed away on Christmas Eve aged 76. Bennett began his compositional life as something of a modernist, studying with Boulez & showing a distinct interest in serialism. But i suspect it’s for his lighter music, particularly jazz, that Bennett will be most fondly remembered. In the late 1990s i worked for the Cheltenham Music Festival, & on one occasion was charged with being Bennett’s assistant for an evening cabaret at the Town Hall (with, i think, Cleo Laine). Until then, i was generally grumpy in the presence of anything jazz-related, but that night everything changed, & i remember being amazed at the wit & sophistication of Bennett’s performance (&, for what it’s worth, he remains one of the most charming composers i’ve ever met).

Around the same time, BBC Music Magazine gave away a free CD of Bennett’s music, featuring his Four Jazz Songs. On hearing of his death, the last of these songs, ‘Goodbye for Now’, came immediately to mind. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)

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This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian & the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.

Vine chose Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy & loss, & confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” & “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh & agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. But Tennyson’s is a positive text, & Vine’s music too seeks ultimately to strike a resounding cry of hope. Having worked fairly perfunctorily through the verses (& that’s no criticism), Vine repeats the final verse in conjunction with a reprise of the opening words, now rendered as an abstract peal of bells. It’s very effective, emboldening the music through its closing moments, leaving a pronounced sense of optimism hanging in the air. Ring in 2013.

Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)

FLAC [19Mb]
Text (PDF)

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Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, & the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, & connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy & imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she & Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon & exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging & blushing of colours & motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another & allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect & are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

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To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion & insight into sacred thought & action that made him entirely unique, & not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself—irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity—is perhaps the most fascinating & engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir & Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, which was broadcast a few years ago in BBC Radio 3′s Composer of the Week exploring Harvey’s music. Read more

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