Evocative bewilderments of utterance: Kenneth Hesketh – Wunderkammer(konzert)

Posted on by Simon Cummings in CD reviews | Leave a comment

Among the recent releases from the NMC Recordings stable i was pleased to see one devoted to the music of Kenneth Hesketh. Ken’s music has intrigued me for some years, & i’ve had the good fortune to conduct one of his works (Fra Duri Scogli) back in 2010. The new NMC disc brings together a cluster of pieces, most of which were composed around five years ago. They include no fewer than three orchestral works, plus a pair of ensemble pieces, focussing on commissions for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Ensemble 10/10, who are the respective performers on the disc.

i think it’s only fair to suggest that Hesketh’s music is an acquired taste, & not because it’s particularly ear- or mind-mangling. On the contrary, one of the characteristics that typifies these five works is their overwhelming clarity, which over time can become a tad relentless, even oppressive. Yet that’s an integral aspect of the multi-faceted charm that is equally typical of this music. When turned in the direction of an archetypal concert-opener, as in A Rhyme for the Season, the orchestral forces are kept firmly in place, embodying the kind of spiky, ants-in-the-pants restlessness that fans of mainstream (i.e. published) British music will find very familiar, yet treated to more than usually enchanting orchestration. Ideas pass at breakneck speed between the sections, & despite its relative functionality, there are some nicely unexpected structural moments that prevent it feeling workaday or staid. Read more

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Proms 2013 – looking forward

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Proms | 4 Comments

This year’s Proms programme was unveiled today, & it makes for a typically interesting, if somewhat unadventurous, prospect. Both the season & the assortment of world premières will be kicked off, as usual, with a safe, mainstream choice, Julian Anderson. As for the rest, it’s impressive to see how large-scale some of these new works are going to be, with Thomas Adès, Naresh Sohal & Nishat Khan each contributing pieces touted to be of at least 40 minutes’ duration. The prospect of a new commission from Frederic Rzewski is rather mouth-watering too, as is a brace of new variations from John Woolrich & Tansy Davies, expanding the set originally composed in 1952 by Britten, Berkeley, Tippett & others. Like last year, the UK premières are in some ways more exciting, particularly those by Helmut Lachenmann, Stockhausen, Harrison Birtwistle & Peter Eötvös. Inevitably, it’s not a season devoid of potential humdrummery—works from both Colin & David Matthews, Philip Glass, Diana Burrell & George Lloyd may well present the wrong kind of challenge—but hopefully the season’s damp squibs will once again pale beside its triumphs.

The season starts on Friday 12 July; all of the information you might want or need can be found here. Good, bad or indifferent, i’ll be covering all of the premières on 5:4—be there or be Philip Glass.

Classical music: a game of tags

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Comment | 5 Comments

i was ruefully amused yesterday to read an article by one of my esteemed blogospherical brothers-in-arms, Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Tim was bewailing his experiences of the use—or, more accurately, misuse—of tags applied to works of a classical persuasion on Spotify. On the one hand, i use Spotify so rarely that i haven’t experienced Tim’s particular problem; yet the usage & abusage of audio file tags has been a bête noire of mine for the best part of a decade. For those unclear as to what all this is about, tags are simply the assorted fields of data that contain the various attributes of an audio file, chiefly the artist, & the titles of the track & album from which it comes, but also an extensive range of additional fields, such as the track/disc number, the year of release, the genre, & many more. All of these tags can be edited by the listener within whatever program they use for digital music; & this is just as well, as while tags are pre-populated in digital downloads, & there exists a number of online services that automatically supply the tag information whenever a CD is put into the computer, almost without fail, in both cases, there are errors aplenty.

For more populist musical idioms, the information that should be contained in these tags is completely straightforward; the artist, track titles, album title, etc. are all clear and present no real issues. But Tim’s right to flag up the fact that in the realm of classical fare, what should be put in these tags is often a matter of debate & personal judgement, & without some thought & care, can become entirely meaningless. The first issue it raises is that of the distinction between an ‘artist’ & a ‘composer’. The Artist tag is one of the most important in audio software, while the Composer is there as an optional extra. (Last.fm, the website that collates & lists everything one has listened to, only pays attention to the Artist tag, which demonstrates how secondary the Composer tag really is.) In pop music, the audience focuses on the artist while the composer may not even be known. So Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, for example, will obviously have Kylie tagged as the Artist, while the composers of the song, Cathy Dennis & Rob Davis, can be tagged as the composers—but, it could be reasonably asked, why would you bother, apart from for the sake of completeness?

Classical music, though, is different. Take Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: Mahler is obviously the composer & could be tagged as such, but what to put in the Artist tag is where the debate begins. Some would say that this is where the orchestra/conductor should be shown, but i have never agreed with this. Perhaps i’m biased due to being a composer myself, but i have always felt that the composer should be tagged as the Artist. They created the work, they are famous for having created that work, they (one hopes) are the one whose name is emblazoned most prominently on the accompanying artwork. It’s not irrelevant that the symphony is being performed by the CBSO, LSO or whoever, but it’s of secondary importance, just as the composer of a pop song is (in this context) secondary. If this approach is not taken, then the composer’s name needs to be included in each track title, which convolutes the tagging process & invites a veritable host of problems with regard to what should go in the Artist tag: does the orchestra name go first, then the conductor? what punctuation between them? is the orchestra name abbreviated? are soloists mentioned too? It’s ridiculous to take this approach, but the practice is surprisingly common, & seems to have afflicted the music Tim was attempting to navigate (the Artist field isn’t visible in his screenshot, so it’s impossible to be sure).

But the main problem with which Tim was confronted, & which has always been the most pervasive issue in the tagging of classical music, was to do with the Title tag. Contemporary music, with its self-conscious emphasis on smart-‘n’-snappy titles, often avoids problems in this area, but it’s not immune; multi-movement works, particularly symphonies & the like, require a little more dedication to make them meaningful & useful. It may seem sensible when entering tag data simply to duplicate what appears in the booklet/PDF, but context is everything. To return to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a glance at the booklet yields this:

I. Trauermarsch

If that was used as the Title tag, it would appear one was listening to a work by Mahler called “I. Trauermarsch” which is a little nonsensical, or at least, incomplete. This is precisely what Spotify was offering Tim. Far better to include the name of the work itself in the Title tag as well:

Symphony No. 5 – I. Trauermarsch

Of course, even now there is scope for inconsistencies. Glancing at another recording, the work is titled “Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – should that be included in the Title tag? Furthermore, the same recording lists the first track including its tempo indications:

I. Trauermarsch (In gemessen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt)

Should this be included too? Potentially, the Title tag could become this, which while admittedly rather long & lumbering is perfectly accurate & would be infinitely better than the anonymous scree of meaningless tags used in the Haydn symphonies Tim highlighted:

Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – I. Trauermarsch (In gemessen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt)

What, then, of the orchestras, conductors, et al? How to distinguish between my Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording & the one by Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmoniker? or, for that matter, the transcription of it for the organ played by David Briggs (which is amazing by the way; highly recommended). It’s a personal thing, but i usually incorporate this into the album title: “Symphony No. 5 (Solti)”, although in the organ example i’ve made the Artist “Gustav Mahler (tr. David Briggs)”. That’s a personal choice, & it highlights the fact that there’s always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity & whim involved in the tagging of classical music. But Tim’s point is bang on the money – why does classical music continue to shroud itself in ignorance of the most correct & useful way of using tags? It’s not isolated to Spotify by any means; i’ve experienced the same with downloads from various sources, including the iTunes Store, Presto Classical, NMC Recordings & others who really should know better. So i’d like to echo Tim’s plea that the classical music world—&, just as importantly, its listeners—wake up to the realities of audio tags & finally give them some meaning. Hopefully, pace Tim, its mind will not blow—although, if & when the day finally dawns, mine just might.

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Mix Tape #26: Easy Listening

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Mix Tapes | 6 Comments

For the new 5:4 mix tape i’ve opted for something a little different. i don’t tend to have musical ‘guilty pleasures’ as such, but one of my passions that i rarely talk about is for the plethora of easy listening LPs that were released in abundance during the 1960s & early ’70s. To an extent they were a development from the assortment of effervescent idioms that had exploded in popularity through the 1950s, particularly the Afro-Cuban & Brazilian dances such as the bossa nova, rumba & salsa, but jazz—including mild use of scat—was also central to the easy listening scene, along with instrumental versions of popular hits. Far more sophisticated & imaginative than the relatively restrained parallel ‘beautiful music’ genre that was eventually so heavily promulgated by the Muzak corporation, the similarities nonetheless meant that easy listening unavoidably become intertwined with ‘elevator music’. For this & for other reasons, easy listening has often been judged rather harshly, & it’s true that, charges of commercial exploitation aside, it is music very much of its time, not all of which has aged well. Even i can’t really listen to it without being instantly transported back to the late 1970s when my parents would fill their respective houses with the strains of Herb Alpert, Bert Kaempfert, Mantovani, et al. Yet while nostalgia no doubt plays a part in my love of this music, above all i adore the way it vividly captures the slick, lounging sophistication & late-night sleazy dreaminess that seems so quintessential of the time. The standard of the arrangements, too, was often outstanding, a quality easily overlooked when the genre is dismissed out of hand. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Tree of Strings (UK Première)

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Lent Series | 2 Comments

A couple of summers ago, the Beloved & i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves & sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye & the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s & ’80s, & is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), & the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories & objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy. Read more

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New digital release: Could you not watch one hour with me?

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Announcements | Leave a comment

Available today for free download is Could you not watch one hour with me?, a conceptual work i created a couple of years ago. Inspired by an act of worship that takes place today, Maundy Thursday, the material heard in the work comprises a one-hour recording made during The Watch, a night vigil that has no formal liturgy or structure, consisting solely of the silent thought, meditation, worship & prayer of the faithful. Presented in this context, my intention is to confront the connotations of that question, exploring notions of substance & absence, silence & sound, focus & lassitude, emptiness & the sacred. The work revisits from a fresh perspective the well-established idea that there is no such thing as silence. It also throws down a challenge in its title, asking, even daring the listener to sacrifice an hour to an end that may appear futile or meaningless. It is my sincerest hope that, in rising to that challenge, one might discover a depth & richness that transcends the silence, & perhaps even a glimpse of the holy.

The work is dedicated to the memory of Rudolf Otto.

For more information and to download, click here.

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James Dillon – String Quartets No. 5 (World Première) & No. 6 (UK Première)

Posted on by Simon Cummings in HCMF, Lent Series | 8 Comments

Despite their official numbering, the last two string quartets written by Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive composer, James Dillon, were actually composed the opposite way round to how they appear. His String Quartet No. 5 was originally begun as a gift for the Arditti Quartet, to celebrate their 30th anniversary. However, Dillon ultimately put the work aside unfinished, before returning to complete it a few years later, sending it to Irvine Arditti unannounced, now as a gift for their 35th anniversary. In the intervening period, Dillon had already completed what would subsequently be called his String Quartet No. 6. Regardless of the numbers, though, the two works have much in common, in terms of duration (each lasting around 15 minutes) as well as the type & treatment of their material. Read more

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