Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir – In Praise of Darkness (UK Première)

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One of the things i particularly enjoy when listening is the sense of not knowing where i am, uncertain of what exactly the music is doing or where it’s going: of being kept, for a time at least, in the dark. It’s this kind of ‘darkness’ that i think typifies the orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness, by Icelandic composer Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir.

Much of the work’s first half exhibits an interesting ambivalence, caught between impulses towards reticence and confidence. The latter can be heard both in a repeated-note idea that appears near the beginning, starting in low flutes and migrating through the winds, but most strongly in loud, deep notes intoned by the brass. The former manifests in a more global sense of caution that pervades the whole orchestra, in which sounds feel placed with fastidious consideration and care, and where no particular idea has sufficient impetus to cause a catalytic effect. As a consequence, details emerge and dissipate, and everything seems to be hanging in space with the range of movement of a mobile. Read more

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

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Liisa Hirsch – Lävi (World Première)

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Being the first day of the season of Lent, today marks the start of the 5:4 Lent Series. This year, i’m going to be exploring works written for full orchestra, beginning with a piece by Estonian Liisa Hirsch. Hirsch is an intriguing composer; i’m still at a relatively early stage of getting to know her work well, but what i’ve encountered thus far suggests that, among other things, texture – or, more specifically, the way a texture changes over time – seems to be significant in her work.

That’s certainly the case in Lävi [‘threshold’] which i was fortunate to hear a couple of years ago during the Estonian Music Days. There’s a lot going on in the piece, but it makes most sense to speak of it in quite general terms. The title is all-important. ‘Threshold’ is an interesting word to use in a musical context as it indicates both stasis, referencing a fixed point, and movement, implying progression through or past that point with the concomitant suggestion of an ensuing effect or change in state. In the specific context of Hirsch’s music, it seems to me that the emphasis is put not simply on the duality but the liminality of this idea, focusing on the identity of material, the nature of change between identities and what constitutes the tipping point from one to the other. Read more

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Quatuor Bozzini – Phill Niblock: Baobab

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One of the more memorable events at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was the late night concert at Bates Mill given by Quatuor Bozzini, featuring music by Éliane Radigue and Phill Niblock. A few weeks ago, the Bozzinis released an album featuring two works by Niblock, including the one they played in Huddersfield, Disseminate as Five String Quartets. i have to admit that i was sceptical about the extent to which the experience could be adequately captured in a recording. Niblock’s endless waves of juddering pitch had made Bates Mill seem not simply filled but saturated, one minute feeling as though we were submerged in water, the next suffused with dazzling light. Either way, it was a veritable flood.

This recording goes a long way to living up to that mesmeric live encounter. Both works, in fact, inhabit this same soundworld, both starting life as orchestral pieces that Niblock reworked for a live string quartet plus four additional prerecorded quartets. Disseminate as Five String Quartets sets out with only the implication of stability, harmonically complex from the outset with something that may or may not be dronal at its core. This develops into a conflict where apparent stasis (the piece, after all, is built upon slow moving, drawn-out pitches) is continually undermined by strange undulations and shifts in its tonal makeup. Often, one becomes aware of something only after it’s actually been present for some time, and it’s similarly difficult to track the evolution of the work’s harmony, which from around halfway through has become seriously smeared, still dronal but tonally clusterfucked. Read more

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John Wall & Alex Rodgers – Soar

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Oh mate give this shit a rest
Why should you be allowed to think your dream means anything?

These words of poet Alex Rodgers come towards the end of ‘County Moods (part 1)’, the opening piece on Soar, his latest collaboration with musician John Wall. The question these words pose mirrors part of my own thinking while listening to the album. Interestingly, though, not because of anything specific that i was hearing.

Released by Entr’acte a few weeks back, it’s the first time that one of the duo’s albums has been issued with Rodgers’ texts included, here compiled in an accompanying book. This is interesting in and of itself, but it also serves as something of a challenge to several aspects of how i’d perceived their previous output. Alex Rodgers is one of the most enigmatic poetic voices i’ve encountered. On the one hand, his delivery tends to adhere to the same general tone, register and dynamic, yet he’s nonetheless very far from being impassive. On the contrary, he’s often disarmingly akin to a kind of East End manifestation of Viz comic’s gentleman thug Raffles, filling the air with mumbling, possibly-(probably-)inebriated purple prose before threatening to punch your teeth down your throat. Yet just as important is the nature of the words spilling out of his mouth, which veer between stream-of-consciousness and deeply-considered proclamation, thereby encompassing nonsense and profundity, embracing eloquence and profanity. i confess – and, in light of Soar, it does feel like a confession – that there have been many times i’ve felt that it’s not what Rodgers is saying that’s most significant but the way that he’s saying it: a periphrastic paradox melding the coherent and the incomprehensible – or to return to that opening quotation/question, a dream that, beyond its ability to provoke, bewilder and enchant, may well not mean anything.

Yet with Soar that possibility is emphatically challenged. By being published in this way, Rodgers’ elusive texts have been rendered tangible, made more concrete. Beyond this, considering that Rodgers’ words have always preceded Wall’s music – which responds to and essentially ‘clothes’ the words in a supportive, sympathetic soundworld – and, furthermore, that these texts are not always represented verbatim in the finished pieces (certain lines being elided or missing) has the effect of lending the printed texts the quality of an imprimatur, elevating their significance. At least, that’s one way of looking at it; another would be to regard the printed texts as the springboard for not only Wall’s but also Rodgers’ creative spontaneity, never so much reciting his own words as riffing off them, messing around further with their already inscrutable substance, structure and syntax. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Sound Mass; Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra

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The final day of Iceland’s 2019 Dark Music Days festival was characterised by a back-and-forth between prosaic and profound. The penultimate concert i attended, titled ‘Sound Mass’, was an extreme case in point. Once again located in Harpa’s Kaldalón Hall, of the three works performed it was hard to do much more than shrug at Þórólfur Eiríksson‘s short electronic work Rafboð [electrical signals]. Though technically a brand new piece, receiving its first performance, it could have been composed half a century ago; not in itself a problem (the composer’s stated aim was to create a “pure old school electronic piece”), but its conveyor belt of ephemeral morsels were of literal passing interest only, superficial shapes that entirely failed to cohere into a meaningful larger whole. At 30 minutes, Circular Flow by Ríkharður H. Friðriksson was a lot bigger but hardly much better. To look at the plethora of pedals and boxes surrounding Ríkharður, processing the output from his pair of guitars, one expected something quite spectacular. Yet what ensued was like a cross between Aidan Baker and Markus Reuter, but lacking the brooding intensity of the former and the passionate, free-wheeling invention of the latter. It was hard to believe such a quantity of technology was required to create such elementary ambient, clichéd plinky-plonk guitar noodling utterly drenched beyond saturation point in reverberation. Circular Flow was far from an unpleasant experience – in fact it brought to mind soaking in the hot pots at the local swimming baths, the deeply relaxing way most of my days during the festival began – but it was impossible to take seriously music that so grandiloquently pretended that meandering was searching, and that artificial reverb and echo were a substitute for genuine profundity and depth. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Caput Ensemble; Nordic Affect & Maja S K Ratkje

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Last Friday evening at the Dark Music Days we were back within Harpa’s Kaldalón hall (the cube-shaped space of which was disconcertingly impressive every time i entered it) for a concert given by a group new to me, Caput Ensemble, directed by Guðni Franzson. Having been bemused the previous day at hearing a collection of Icelandic orchestral works that were, in general, characterised more by their similarities than by their individuality, it was a relief to hear four new Icelandic ensemble pieces that could hardly have been more different from each other, in terms of both inspiration and execution. Furthermore, attention was turned away from the theme of nature that had governed the orchestral works, in favour of a more direct engagement and scrutiny of sound itself.

In the case of Rounds (being heard for the first time in a revised version) by one of Iceland’s most renowned composers Haukur Tómasson, the notion of the envelope – the way a sound begins, develops and ends – was being explored. It posed the question of, within this group context, what constituted a ‘sound’, which Haukur’s music suggested was not about individual instruments but the product of many combining to form communal sonic entities. This was initially reinforced by having each one of these entities conclude with a loud pizzicato accent like an unequivocal full stop, followed by a pause. As the piece developed it posed the additional question of what makes a sound into an idea – and indeed whether a sound can itself be an idea. This was provoked by the highly gestural nature of the material, forming something like swatches of sharply-defined patterned fabric that, over time, Haukur arranged into a patchwork, such that the joins were often sudden but clearly part of a bigger overall design. Though a touch superficial, Rounds was certainly enjoyable while it lasted. Gunnar A. Kristinsson‘s Rætur [roots], a world première, took inspiration from that most elemental of things, the overtones of the harmonic series, explored in three movements, each of which upped the microtonal ante. Read more

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