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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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge)

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Yesterday’s broadcast of the Advent Carol Service from St John’s College, Cambridge (which, strangely, actually took place a week ago), once again included several pieces of more recent music.

The newly commissioned piece came from a composer i’ve not heard of, James Long. Long’s anthem, Vigilate, weaves together words from the Biblical books of Mark & Revelation to arrive at a text that, in a nutshell, backs up its titular imperative—“watch!”—with an emphatic “or else”. The music is fairly standard-issue new choral music, yet it’s not without some telling moments; the opening & closing stanzas perhaps punch hardest, & while Long’s use of snatches of Latin to echo the English is odd, the appearance of “gallicantu” (“cock’s crow”) is nicely judged. The middle stanzas lose their way somewhat, getting bogged down in the words, but the conclusion of “and every eye shall see him, And they also which pierced him”, where the men’s voices are abruptly silenced to leave just the trebles, is very striking.
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5:4 at HCMF 2012 – Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 & comprised just three pieces, all focussing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods & atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark & ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist & strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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5:4 at HCMF 2012 – Oslo Sinfonietta

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Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory & then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words & gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, & when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.

Ignas KrunglevičiusGradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on & around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. But at the introduction of the text, this not especially inviting material fell back, everyone’s attention now focussed on the words appearing on the wall in front of us, which was divided in two, with one irrational interlocutor occupying each half. Initially, their conversation was bipped out by one singer at a time, one word at a time, but after a while loud electronic pulses took over. The content of the conversation was so fascinating, & so starkly in relief, that it made the accompanying music not so much irrelevant as unnoticed. That in itself, i think, proves it fitted what was going on—if not, it would surely have proved distracting. As it was, the half-baked discourse at the centre of Gradients was able to ring out loudly, confusing & amusing in equal measure. One can only wonder about the long-term value & power of a work like this, but last night, it certainly proved compelling.

Rather than words & syntax, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music had the grammar of gesture in its conceptual sights. A 40-minute work in three sections, it divided the Oslo Sinfonietta into three groups, placed at the sides & rear of the space. At the front, dead centre, was the titular box, with two holes into which the ‘conductor’ put both hands. This was facing away from the audience, but the contents of the box—the conductor’s hands, plus assorted ephemera & some curtains at the front—were hugely projected onto the entire wall. The first part, ‘Ouverture’, established the ‘grammar’ i mentioned before (although ‘rules of the game’ would describe it just as well), the conductor pointing towards different groups to elicit a response, &/or making different shapes & signs with his hands to trigger specific events. It initially seemed as though this was overlong, an entertaining idea stretched too thinly, but the subtlety of Steen-Andersen’s design slowly became apparent. At one point, the relationship between the musicians & the conductor lost all synchronicity, leading one to question exactly who was leading whom, or indeed if there was a ‘leader’ at all. i couldn’t decide whether the title of the second part, ‘Disambiguation’, was intended ironically, because the sheer range & complexity of hand shapes & gestures, as well as the speed with which they progressed & the tautness of the resultant interactions between the various groups, were all dazzling; perhaps they were only able to dazzle precisely because there was no longer any ambiguity. Only the last section, ‘Finale’, seemed to come unstuck; it was definitely overlong, in part due to some technical issues within the box, which by this stage had been festooned with elastic bands, motors with strings striking suspended cups &, at the last, a balloon, & getting all this in place meant the focus became a little lost. But Black Box Music is such a joyous riot of humour & unbridled joie de vivre that it simply didn’t matter; that it also demonstrated formidable technical prowess while asking some searching questions along the way only makes Simon Steen-Andersen’s achievement all the more astonishing. A truly unforgettable performance.


5:4 at HCMF 2012 – Heather Roche

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Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, & comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) & Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes & methods that have become overused & hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up & play with material given off by the soloist, & while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative.

The more successful pieces, though, were far more exciting. The relationship set up by Alex Harker in Fluence was simple but superbly effective, drawing on a vast array of prerecorded clarinet samples. No sign here of the problem of dislocation that plagues so much electroacoustic music; Harker creates a genuine, subtle dialogue between acoustic & electronic, giving the distinct impression that Roche was engaged in a duet—no small achievement. Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s la rupture inéluctable fell into some flat moments, but the demonstrative way Roche interacted with the electronics—regularly stamping a pedal, producing hard-edged, glittering & grinding tones—again made them feel deeply integrated, an extension of the clarinet rather than separated from it. But what struck one more than even these fine works was the remarkable stamina & concentration of Heather Roche’s playing; in her hands, each & every piece became thoroughly absorbing.

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5:4 at HCMF 2012 – Nicolas Hodges

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My HCMF 2012 experience began at midday today in St Paul’s Hall, with Nicolas Hodges’ lunchtime recital featuring piano music by Jean Barraqué. It’s rare, but marvellous, when a concert can be genuinely eye-opening, & everything about this recital was just that. Before the concert, i knew very little of Barraqué’s music, & as Hodges progressed through the first few pieces—Intermezzo, Pièce pour piano, Thème et variations (Retour was sadly omitted from the programme)—a distinct first impression began to take shape: enigmatic, mysterious, aloof, music realised through a sequence of loosely but unmistakably inter-connected melodic intentions that, despite being diffused through wide intervallic displacement, somehow hold together. They brought a very different composer to mind: Morton Feldman, due both to the meticulous way notes were placed after each other, as well as the striking way Barraqué grabs hold of one’s perception of time; despite the brevity of these pieces, their ability to make time malleable was impressive.

But only now did one’s eyes start to become truly opened. Following a (retrospectively somewhat dramatic) moment off stage, Hodges returned to deliver the Deux morceaux pour piano, the first of which undid practically every assumption one had made through the preceding works. Here, without any warning, was absolute fire, erupting in an unstoppable, bewildering cascade of splintered thought, Hodges’ fingers flying over the entire range of the keyboard at almost ludicrous speed. What, now, to make of Barraqué? True, the second of the morceaux displays the same cool reserve heard before, but the first was a genuine & overwhelming shock, as though something quietly benign had against all expectation exploded into raw power, like a monastic act of self-immolation.

This graduated approach to the language of Barraqué felt almost pedagogical (in the best sense), presenting a primer of sorts so as to create a context for what came next, his epic 40-minute Sonata, completed in 1952. On the one hand, this meant it felt stylistically familiar, yet the experience of hearing these diverse elements rigorously explored at length entirely transformed one’s understanding of them. For one thing, the Sonata is a very much more difficult listen, inasmuch as the demands it makes feel considerable (another Feldman similarity), & i’ll happily confess to a number of occasions when i didn’t so much feel ‘lost’ as simply stupefied at the fearlessly inexplicable way Barraqué moves between the work’s discrete strands. Yet for all its inscrutability, the best aspects of the miniature works are magnified to a huge degree, especially the oscillations between fast & slow tempi. If time felt malleable before, now it becomes entirely fluid, Hodges seemingly pulling time around at will, & on occasions stopping it altogether.

Understated throughout, almost meditative, Nicolas Hodges’ performance of this beguiling music was one of the most transparent i’ve ever seen, as though channelling directly Barraqué’s musical voice. United in performance, both composer & pianist were absolutely astonishing.

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New CD coming soon: Dither • Pother • Roil

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In a week’s time, a new CD of my electronic music will be released, titled Dither • Pother • Roil. It contains three distinct but related pieces, which began life in a series of improvisations made in early 2008. Somewhat inexplicably, i promptly lost the recordings & forgot all about them until the start of this year; between February & October i then extensively reworked & developed them into their final, very elaborate forms, which together last around 49 minutes. Here’s a smidgeon from the blurb-spiel:

There are ways in which this trio of works relates to & draws upon both the techniques & sentiments of my earlier electronic music. There are echoes of the shifting abstractions of the Simulated Music cycle, as well as the large-scale sculptural elementalism heard in the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars & ‘Icon’, the central panel in Triptych, May/July 2009. But above all, Dither, Pother & Roil explore (for me) new methods & an expanded mode of expression.

Dither was finished first, & is concerned primarily with material that writhes & roars at its own prevarication. Here’s an excerpt from part II:

Pother continues the thread established in Dither, becoming increasingly fraught & portentous. This is an excerpt from the end of part I:

Roil was the last to be completed, & is the longest & most complex of the three. A multi-layered noisescape, Roil is by far the most unrestrained piece i have ever composed, whipping up elements of Dither & Pother into a clamorous torrent of frenzied outrage. Here’s an excerpt from the end of part IV:

The accompanying artwork explores details from a recent painting by the young American artist Claire Uhle. Titled ‘Well, everything’s moving so slow in this life time.’, the painting goes a long way to capturing everything that Dither, Pother & Roil are seeking to convey (click for high-res).

The CD comes out on 20 November in a numbered limited edition of 50 copies. For more information & to order a copy, click here. A digital download version will also be available.

In other news, my previous CD Night Liminal is now available as a digital download as well. There are also a few CDs left; details about both can be found here & here.

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