What is this “I”: is it my physical presence, is it the temporality in which I stand and pass away, is there an independence of my thoughts from that which I am, or is my entire being merely a fiction of me myself?
This metaphysical conundrum is the starting point for Language of Leaving by the German composer Charlotte Seither, given its world première at the Proms last Wednesday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & BBC Singers conducted by Josep Pons. It’s a question as circular as it is taxing, subjective & strange, & Seither’s gambit is to seek a way into it via speculative music, avoiding a direct mode of expression in favour of a large tapestry of weird, fantastical sonics, equal parts humanistic, supernatural & magical. Setting a text would be impossible in a context such as this, so Seither instead uses words by Francesco de Lemene in the most oblique & intangible way, reducing them to a collection of hints, glimpses & afterthoughts.
Last Wednesday’s world première of Param Vir‘s new Proms commission, Cave of Luminous Mind, gave particular pause for thought in light of its position in the season. Twice recently we have been presented by works from composers of Indian descent (Nishat Khan & Naresh Sohal), works seeking at least in part to acknowledge the disjunct traditions of east & west, yet both composers seemed compelled not to seek a deep synthesis, but to contrive a weak symbiosis by diluting their respective sources of inspiration & tribute. Aside from these works, just once has the (holy) ghost of religion raised its head in this year’s new music (from Sofia Gubaidulina), & then in violently apocalyptic fashion. Which brings us to Cave of Luminous Mind, another of Param Vir’s works in which “Tibetan Buddhism is once again a source of inspiration […] inspired by the meditational journey towards enlightenment of the Tibetan saint Milarepa”, & which is dedicated to contemporary music’s most radical of spiritual seekers, Jonathan Harvey. On its own terms as well as in light of these preceding works, Cave of Luminous Mind was already thought-provoking even before the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, had played a single note. Read more
Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focussed on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he & five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round'; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich & Tansy Davies.
Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise & practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. & the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more
The beauty & diversity of nature has been a recurring theme in this year’s new music at the Proms, whereas religious sentiment has been entirely absent—until, that is, last Tuesday’s performance of Sofia Gubaidulina‘s The Rider on the White Horse. Culled & reworked from her 2002 oratorio St John Easter (which, with its counterpart St John Passion, comprise Gubaidulina’s magnum opus), the work draws on imagery from the most vivid & strange book of the Bible, the Revelation to John.
It’s interesting to be considering the next Proms première in the wake of having seen, last night, Bollywood’s latest blockbuster offering, Chennai Express. Bollywood’s glory—& at its best, that is definitely the right word—is in its uniquely convoluted appropriation & reinvention of western tropes, served in a form that, to western eyes, is as charming as it is (at times) utterly bewildering & comic. Its supreme success & effectiveness are surely due to the fact that it is the best kind of cultural fusion, built upon twin—&, more importantly, equal—foundations. A benchmark worth bearing in mind when turning to The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1), the new vehicle for renowned sitarist Nishat Khan, performed on Monday by him with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Atherton. Immediately, it must be stressed that to describe this piece as being ‘by’ Nishat Khan is to bend the truth intolerably. Welsh composer & music therapist Pete Stacey was commissioned by the BBC to “develop & orchestrate” Khan’s ideas, as Stacey explains: “As well as our meetings I would receive recordings. These were the melodies that Nishat wanted to use, and I spent many months developing these single lines into full orchestral pieces.” As collaborations go, looking at the concerto as a whole, Stacey’s contribution arguably outweighs that of Khan, which makes it all the more disingenuous that Stacey’s name should be entirely absent from all of the Proms’ promotional materials. Having said that, perhaps it’s all to to the good, as The Gate of the Moon is a work far more worthy of blame than praise. Read more
On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things & people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression. Read more