Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: The Strings of the BBC NOW; Hansel & Gretel

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Sitting in Cheltenham Town Hall last Saturday for a concert of music by the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was a boilingly hot, practically overheating, experience. This was nothing whatsoever to do with the endless waves of sunshine with which we’re currently being treated, and everything to do with the première to which we were being subjected, Richard Blackford’s Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra. Exasperation had begun to set in even before Martyn Brabbins had started to conduct the piece, due to the fact that the performance was preceded by a 20-minute – let me say that again: 20-minute – introduction to the piece by Blackford in ‘conversation’ with Christopher Cook. In reality, it wasn’t a conversation at all, since Blackford responded to each of Cook’s supposedly spontaneous questions with a lengthy pre-written script that he cleaved to as if his life depended on it. It was one of the most excruciatingly cringeworthy bits of narcissistic verbiage i have ever heard, in which anyone who didn’t know better would be forgiven for thinking Blackford was the first person in history to have composed music in two tempi simultaneously (gasp!). His mixture of self-aggrandising pomposity and stilted humour was agonising to sit through, and since i’m not elderly, infirm or retarded, i could hardly have objected more passionately to this kind of overweening spoon-feeding. i honestly felt like asking him if he’d like to wipe my mouth when he’d finished. Read more

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Mixtape #47 : Travelogue

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For my July mixtape, i’ve decided to take myself on an impromptu trip around mainland Europe. With the help of Google Maps, i’ve plotted a course that’s somewhat circuitous but which manages to take in most of the continent. Starting in Holland (I Was A Teenage Satan WorshipperRyoji Ikeda), we move down through Belgium (Autechre) and France (Andrew Liles) to the coast of Portugal (John Oswald). Coming back through Spain (Fergus KellySPC ECO) and detouring into France again (Karsten PflumZbigniew Karkowski) brings us to Monaco (John Debney), followed by a more prolongued period in Italy (Susanne SundførYelleJohn Williams). Then we head north through Switzerland (Johnny Williams) for a longer stay in Germany (The Noisettes, Cluster, Bath40, Marc Behrens), before heading south again, through the Czech Republic (White Sea), glancing off Italy one final time (Muséum) and then down to the southern reaches of Croatia (FURT plus) and Bosnia and Herzgovina (Francis Dhomont), ending up for a bit of R&R in Greece (Three Drives).

The journey through eastern and northern Europe initially takes us through Bulgaria (Brian Eno), Romania (The Noisettes) and Hungary (Alexandre Desplat), then we veer across to Austria (James Newton Howard) before heading north rapidly through Poland (Kate HavnevikJoy Division) as far as Latvia (Markus Reuter). A brief jaunt in Russia follows (Cabaret VoltaireBersarin Quartett), whereupon we head for the Nordic countries via Estonia (Velvcsze), passing through Finland (Brothomstates) before travelling across the Baltic Sea (Somatic Responses) to Sweden (Lady & Bird), Denmark (Iain ArmstrongScott Walker) and Norway (Isaiah Ceccarelli). The epilogue to the journey involves leaving the mainland, flying first to the Faroe Islands (Zinovia) and finally arriving in Iceland (J.Viewz).

At a mere two hours’ duration, the mix is one hell of a whistle-stop tour; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music: Read more

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The Dialogues: Helena Tulve

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i’m thrilled to to present a new addition to my series The Dialogues, which, on this occasion, finds me in conversation with the Estonian composer Helena Tulve, whose work i’ve admired for many years. Although widely-known across Europe, Tulve’s music – like most Estonian music (with one obvious exception) – is very rarely heard in UK concert halls. Considering how radical and unconventional her music is this is unfortunate, though there’s some mitigation to be found in the two albums of her music released by ECM, Lijnen (2008) and Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia (2014) (an earlier album, Sula, released by Estonian Radio in 2005, is extremely hard to find but well worth the effort). Discussion about Tulve’s work is similarly neglected, and as far as i’ve been able to ascertain, this Dialogue may be the first really in-depth interview with Tulve to have been published anywhere, in which case i’m glad to have been able to shed some light on her music and the compositional thinking behind it.

As usual, i’ve interpolated numerous excerpts from Tulve’s music throughout the Dialogue to expand upon and illustrate some of the points being made in our conversation. A complete list of these excerpts can be found below, together with links to buy the music – though it should be noted that many of them are taken from live recordings and are not presently available. Please also note the small number of footnotes i’ve added below which address a couple of ambiguities and errors (on my part) that cropped up in the discussion.

i want to thank Helena for being so generous with her time and so forthcoming in our conversation. It’s my sincere hope that this Dialogue will go some way to the whetting of appetites and a deeper understanding of her music and compositional outlook, and that as a consequence we might hear a lot more of her work, both live and on recordings, in future. In my view, she’s one of the most outstanding composers working today. For those wanting to explore Tulve’s work further, there are some links at the end. i also want to thank Mari Arnover for providing the photo used on the artwork.

Finally, having noted the general absence of her music in UK concert halls, there’s a rare chance to hear one of Tulve’s most overwhelming works, her 2007 orchestral piece Extinction des choses vues, at a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at Maida Vale next Wednesday. It’s an opportunity absolutely not to be missed – though for those who can’t be there, the concert is being recorded for broadcast at a later date.
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Beyond Pythagoras; Phantom Images

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Perhaps the most consistently and fearlessly challenging of UK new music labels is Huddersfield Contemporary Records. As such, they’re not exactly a label needing to up their game, but with their latest couple of albums they’ve done just that, releasing some of the most unforgettable stuff i’ve heard this year. Before discussing Beyond Pythagoras and Phantom Images it’s worth mentioning that, in keeping with the exploratory compositional curiosity that prevails at Huddersfield University, the first impression these discs make is as research publications, the product of intense academic consideration and scrutiny. i only mention this because, first, very few labels seek to place up-front the scholarly, investigative aspects of the music; second, this is not (as a listener) anything to be afraid of; and third, that’s far from being the whole story. Personally, i like being able to engage with the academic side of this kind of music-making. It highlights the experimentalism that underpins most innovation, as well as the provisional nature of such experiments; this, in turn, punctures the bubble – continually re-inflated with perfumed, romantic helium – that composition is all about divine inspiration and magic. Composition, at its best, is about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, about feeling the ‘earth’ of the musical stuff between your fingers and finding how it wants and you want it to be shaped; it’s about hunches and algorithms and wild guesses and systems and why-the-hell-nots and struggles and elation, with concomitant failures and triumphs. Maybe all i’m trying to say in this now way overlong opening paragraph is that Huddersfield Contemporary Records really gets this, and these two discs are a superbly authentic testament to the rigour and the glee that the best compositions encompass and embody. Read more

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Tom Mudd – Gutter Synthesis; Jeroen Diepenmaat – Ode

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Another recent release from the Entr’acte label that’s been intriguing me lately is Gutter Synthesis by British electronic experimentalist Tom Mudd. The six tracks on the album are divided between three Gutter Synthesis pieces and three Gutter Organ pieces, all of which were created using Mudd’s own software, created specifically for this project.

The Gutter Synthesis tracks are, in general, more austere and meandering. The first features an interesting interplay between a low drone and varying quantities of shifting surface jitter and squeal, highly metallic in character and punctuated by occasional sonic punches. The second, more engagingly, presents a seemingly self-contained computer process, as though the machine were turning over ideas, examining them and juxtaposing them, in the process forming a vague notion of pulse. Metallic timbres are the focus here too, made more challenging due to the piercing intensity they develop later on. In Gutter Synthesis 3 we hear an apparently arbitrary procession of sound objects, some low and gritty, others high and pure. In some respects this track is a paradigm of the album as a whole, inasmuch that it benefits considerably from repeated listenings, the process of which diminishes the pervading austerity and brings clarity (or, at least, familiarity, which can be the same thing) to the strange narrative in this and all the other tracks, such that they become increasingly compelling. Read more

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Coppice – Surreal Air Fortress

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For many years now i’ve been following the output of Joseph Kramer and Noé Cuéllar’s experimental duo Coppice. Their music is not only difficult to categorise, utilising a vast array of appropriated, re-purposed, handmade and/or otherwise kludged bits of elaborate mechanical paraphernalia, but also impossible to predict. ‘Frictional’ is a word that would once have gone some way to characterising the basis of their sonic palette, but over the last few years the range and nature of the sounds they’ve employed has expanded to the point that, if you weren’t told what was being used, it would be nigh-impossible to work out. And Coppice (not unlike Matmos) have always been supremely good at detailing the appliances they wield, testifying to the sense of pride the duo has in them, and in the case of their latest release, a 30-minute album titled Surreal Air Fortress, the list of ‘instruments’ is typically eclectic, including a ‘reconstituted copper plate’, a ‘barbed object’, ‘pining object’ and ‘dead air object’, a ‘Prepared pump organ’, a ‘fake Leslie Cabinet’ and ‘fake Rhodes’, a ‘modified boombox’ and some ‘no-kink corrugated tubing’. Such a variety of sources points to either the kind of pell-mell whimsy where random things are thrown together, or to a fastidious, considered approach to the juxtaposition of elements. i think there’s a bit of both, actually – even at their most austere, Coppice display more than a trace of caprice – though overall it’s the apparent care taken in the creation of their music that’s most evident and consistently impressive.

Even making allowances for Coppice’s unpredictability, Surreal Air Fortress came as a genuine surprise. There are words! They sing!! Described by Cuéllar and Kramer as “songs for physical modelling and modular syntheses”, the essence of the two tracks on the album undeniably fits within an expanded notion of ‘song’. Each takes the form of a triptych, only the first of which, Privacy and Difference, contains words. The opening section establishes a paradigm for the whole album, specifically an intriguing lack of clarity about whether it’s the duo or their apparatus that’s the driving force, making most of the decisions. Indeed, ‘decisions’ may not really be the best word, as one of the key attributes of Surreal Air Fortress overall is incidentality: a strong sense that the collection of pulsed episodes we pass through – to call them ‘beats’ would be absurd, and even describing the music as ‘rhythmic’ is stretching a point – have emerged inadvertently as a by-product of the literal machinations of the equipment. Read more

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North of North – s/t, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras – Ellesmere

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My first encounter with the music of Anthony Pateras – in the form of last year’s The Slow Creep of Convenience, his duo with violinist Erkki Veltheim – was a mind-blowing experience, one of the best things i had heard all year. So i was excited when two new discs arrived recently, both featuring Pateras, in guises that are both similar to and very different from that previous release. They’ve been giving me much to think about, particularly with regard to improvisation.

North of North is a trio project in which Pateras and Veltheim are joined by trumpeter Scott Tinkler, and their latest self-titled album, released a couple of months back on the trio’s own label _offcompass_, is a three-part improvised journey called Church Of All Nations. Where improvisation is concerned, there’s an important distinction to be made between short-term and long-term perspectives. The most interesting improvisations i’ve heard don’t simply pay equal attention to both these perspectives, but unfold in such a way as to keep throwing emphasis on one such that our understanding of the other is enriched. The effect on the listener is akin to cinematic zooms and panning, pushing in to scrutinise filigree surface details, pulling out to reveal their broader context. As far as Church Of All Nations is concerned there’s an immediate hint, even before listening, that long-term considerations have been borne in mind, since the three parts are presented in the non-sequential order 1-3-2, an interesting decision that perhaps says something about the overall tone and content of the piece. Read more

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