Cheltenham Music Festival: Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen

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Festivals come & festivals go, & Cheltenham—just like Bristol New Music a few months back—imaginatively opted to end not with a bang but on a high. It came courtesy of Norway, with the immaculate combination of Trio Mediaeval, three female singers with voices lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, & one of the most versatile trumpeters of our age, Arve Henriksen. The fruits of their collaboration, heard within the majestic space that is Cheltenham College’s Chapel, were as breathtaking as they were unexpected. For a little over an hour, they together weaved a tapestry of sound that integrated early music from throughout Europe, both sacred & secular, with avant garde & experimental elements, including electronics. What this was not—& the lengthy, articulate programme note from the Trio went to some lengths to elaborate this—was an attempt to present early music with an affected air of ‘authenticity’, but instead to embrace the unknowability of such ancient music & reinvent it at each performance. As such, it becomes something simultaneously ancient & modern: Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Pärt & Tavener, A Candlelit Tribute to John Tavener

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In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try & make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt & John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet & a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas & Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration & appraisal of both composers’ work.
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Cheltenham Music Festival: Fidelio Trio, The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, Tokaido Road

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Cheltenham Music Festival, Concerts, Premières | 1 Comment

Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways & for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences & memories from the past. The most frustrating & patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland & Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint & simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focussed lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin & cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work & second première: Gavin HigginsThe Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after & inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical & nostalgic weight. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: An Evening with Nicola Benedetti

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Once upon a time, it bore the proud title Cheltenham Festival of British Contemporary Music; for the last 50 years, it’s simply been Cheltenham Music Festival. Even though it has to a large extent yielded to the essentially conservative musical taste that pervades this part of the Cotswolds (as a Cheltonian myself, I can say that without compunction), Cheltenham has evolved into a festival where music old & new sit side by side, with many concerts featuring at least one contemporary work. There have been times, over the years, when this ancient/modern adjacency has felt forced, even apologetic. However, last night’s event, in our rather grand Town Hall, was nothing of the kind. Read more

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Mix Tape #30 : Prime Numbers

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For the new 5:4 Mix Tape, i’m not so much exploring a theme as a conceit. Mathematics has been a recurring feature of both my compositional & recreational activities lately, so for this new mix tape i’ve compiled a selection of music the titles of which incorporate the first 21 prime numbers. It was, i should say, quite a challenge, but the result is, i think, a highly stimulating mixture of exquisite non-sequiturs & unexpected aural connections. The mix is in part characterised by the presence of line, from a host of oblique angles, including jazz (Tartar Lamb II), avant-garde (John Zorn), math rock (Three Trapped Tigers), neo-Wendy Carlos retrosynthtronics (Laibach), indeterminacy (Kenneth Kirschner), counterpoint in extremis (Conlon Nancarrow), bassline-driven electronica (Last Step), post-romantic ecclesiastical dreaminess (Marcel Dupré) & lo-fi intimacy (Kid Koala). Elsewhere texture predominates, either with a harmonic underpinning (Ochre, Celer, Nine Inch Nails (but only just), Dick Mills, V/Vm) or from a percussive/glitch/noise perspective (At Jennie Richie, Ryoji Ikeda, Paul D. Miller, Bass Communion, @c). Read more

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New releases: Fuzzy, Craig Leon, Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek, Tim Hodgkinson

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Have you heard of Fuzzy? No, i hadn’t either – so i was pleased to explore a new compilation of music by the enigmatically-monikered Danish composer (otherwise known as Jens Vilhelm Pedersen), recently released by DaCapo. Chimes of Memory presents five works, most of them pretty hefty & which together indicate a composer of diverse interests & decidedly playful outlook. Electronics feature prominently, yet the longest piece is his 30-minute Notre-Dame Trilogy for solo organ, completed in 2006. Fuzzy’s approach to the instrument is clearly rooted in the 20th century French organ tradition but this doesn’t so much fetter the music as provide a frame of reference for it to circle around, bash against &, occasionally, flee from. As such, although regimented within highly compartmentalised structures, Fuzzy’s irrepressible humour & sense of fun keeps the music from being all about an ongoing sense of formal interconnectedness. Put simply, intuition & whim seem to have led the way, & despite some lurches into quasi-Baroque figurations & one or two rather obvious melodic homages to Dupré & Tournemire, Fuzzy more than stamps his own mark on this most unwieldy of instruments, only occasionally using it at full blast. Electronics are clearly close to Fuzzy’s heart, though, often evocative to the point of resembling TV/movie soundtracks. In a piece like B-Movies, for harp & electronics, it’s quite deliberate, the soloist acting as a foil to the electronic scene-shifting around it. But Tre tilbageblik for bass saxophone & electronics clarifies that a dramatic sensibility—& a highly accessible one at that—is an essential part of Fuzzy’s language. Read more

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New releases: Duologue, OY, V/Vm

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Among the swathe of new releases currently jostling around the 5:4 jukebox, i want to start by flagging up two interesting recent releases, both serendipitous discoveries from the panning-for-gold approach to listening that is my modus operandi these days. First is Duologue, a five-piece from London whose latest EP, Memex, has initiated a host of earworms that are continuing to burrow around my subconscious at the moment. It’s an obvious place to begin, but their sound has more than a little to do with Radiohead, & not simply due to singer Tim Digby-Bell’s ululating vocals that often sound strikingly like a less defocussed Thom Yorke. Their songs share Radiohead’s interest in playing with the multiplicity of conventions associated with rock & pop. Thus, the EP’s title track melds dream pop & autotune to strange effect, crumbling into a hard-edged coda, while ‘Operator’ bumbles along at a fair old lick, with some nicely-judged harmonic shifts in a pair of softer episodes that break up the momentum—yet overall carrying a sense of ecstatic stasis, made manifest in the song’s energetic dancefloor-infused conclusion. But third track ‘Traps’ stands out way beyond either of these, evoking music from an earlier time while conjuring up a sense of balmy humidity; this is checked by the song’s regular structural shifts where major & minor tonality are superimposed (such a simple use of dissonance but still more-or-less unheard of in music of this kind) to delicious effect. Having also spent time with the group’s first album, Song & Dance (which i also warmly recommend), ‘Traps’ is definitely their strongest song to date, mature & subtle. The EP is available in physical formats (CD/vinyl) direct from the band & in digital from all the usual places, plus you can stream it below. Read more

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