Despite the fact that writing about amazing music is such an unalloyed pleasure, there are times—many more times than i would care to admit—when the music skitters away, becoming elusive when confronted by one’s attempts to speak of it. Perhaps there’s no dishonour in being confounded by glory, but the frustration has never been more acute than when trying to write about the music of Jakob Ullmann. Including the outstanding fremde zeit addendum 3CD boxset of his music near the top of my 2012 Best Albums list wasn’t just an act of fitting celebration but also of defeat; the bland paragraph i wrote to accompany its entry came after umpteen doomed attempts at something more substantial earlier in the year. So when the Edition RZ label recently sent me their latest release of his music, fremde zeit addendum 4, it seemed only fitting to try again.
For anyone unacquainted with Ullmann’s music, there are equivalent points of entry to be found in any of the releases Edition RZ has put out over the last few years, A Catalogue of Sounds, voice, books and FIRE 3, the aforementioned boxset as well as this new CD. It’s worth mentioning that Edition RZ—one of the most forward-looking of labels in any case—has been essentially a lone advocate where Ullmann is concerned; considering how many of his works remain unperformed & recorded, other labels would be wise, finally, to catch on. For there is something truly extraordinary going on in Jakob Ullmann’s music, music that positions itself in a place that is both minimal & dangerously liminal. Read more
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
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.
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
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
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.