Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Maria Kõrvits – through (World Première)

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The second piece i’m looking at in this Estonia in Focus weekend is through, a new work for seven players by Maria Kõrvits. In some respects it’s reasonable to think of through as a ‘mood piece’, drawing for inspiration on a series of short lines taken from the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves:

Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.
I hold a stalk in my hand.
I am the stalk.

My roots go down to the depths of the world,
through earth dry with brick, and damp earth,
through veins of lead and silver.

I am all fibre.
All tremors shake me,
and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.

…and I feel come over me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down and down
till they wrap themselves round
some hardness at the centre.
I am rooted, but I flow.

Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Mirjam Tally – Vårtidens ljus (World Première)

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Towards the end of next week i’ll be heading off to Tallinn once again for the annual Estonian Music Days, and will be exploring what happened in some depth once i return. So in anticipation of that, for my next Estonia in Focus weekend i’m looking at a couple of new works that received their first performances just last month.

i’ve been enjoying the latest new piece by one of Estonia’s most well-known composers Mirjam Tally, a choral work that’s particularly appropriate to the current time of year. Titled Vårtidens ljus (the light of spring), the text is by the late Finnish Sami poet and musician Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a simple aphoristic text celebrating the season’s light and warmth and their impact upon us both physically and psychologically: “spring days / light is burning / Warms the mind / heals the heart”.

Tally’s response to the text (set in Swedish) takes the form of a blissed-out reverie that occasionally explodes in fired-up climaxes. She equips each member of the choir with a crotale – all different pitches – suspended on a string, and a small bucket of water. More about the latter in a moment. The starting point for the piece is a network of improvised crotale strikes, which the choir then adds to with quiet whistles that Tally adds colour to via wide vibrato and air noise. When the voices finally begin to sing (this opening section can be up to three minutes long), their articulation of the opening words is informed by these sounds, rendering them a mixture of whispers, sibilance and exhalations as much as coherent sung notes. Read more

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New release: ma

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In a few days’ time, my most recent cycle of electronic music will be released by the adventurous Portuguese label, Crónica. The title of the cycle is the Japanese word (ma), which is difficult easily to translate into English. The concept it embodies is a spatial one, specifically the gap between two discrete structural parts or elements, with associated connotations of an interval or pause. In his book Silence in Philosophy, Literature, and Art, Steven Bindeman has described 間 as “the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form … Ma is not created by compositional elements, but takes place in the imagination of someone who experiences these elements. Therefore it can best be defined as the experiential place that is held by an interval.” As such, 間 is often regarded as an embodiment of ‘negative space’, where the apparent absence of substance or form or sound is rendered concrete and tangible.

Those of you who have followed my work over the years may occasionally have heard or seen reference to something i was working on with a provisional title ‘TACET.’, which was originally intended to be an enormous project containing many hours of music. However, as this music was born out of and confronts a very difficult and painful period of my life, i eventually realised that it wasn’t particularly healthy to persist with the project beyond a certain point. My response to this period took shape through meditation on the concept of 間, in which silence is not a simple absence or emptiness but rather becomes a focal point, with a shape, character, and energy that all contribute to a larger whole.

The composition process began with recordings that i made during a traditional Anglican service of Evensong. Everything was then removed from the recordings with the exception of the brief silences that fall between the various sections of the service, fragments of sound capturing echoes, resonances, and glimpses of ambience. These fragments were then used as the sound palette for a series of improvisations that formed the basis for each of the pieces in the cycle. They were subjected to extensive processing and sculpting, and are only occasionally heard in their raw state.

The concept of 間 implies a certain degree of tranquillity and calm, but the emphasis in this music is focused on connotations of negativity. Put simply, this is (from my perspective, at least) angry music, veering between nervous, fretful twitching and unbridled, distorted ferocity. Rage and obsession are recurring traits throughout, manifesting in harsh, acidic, repetitive clatter and throbbing pulses, and even in the more quiet passages – of which there are very many – the music is designed to emphasise tension, unrest and a pervading sense of ominous dread. Listening through headphones or in an extremely quiet space is especially recommended due to the quiet and subtle material that features in some of the pieces.

In its final form, 間 comprises eight works, lasting around an hour, many of which take their titles from poems by E. E. Cummings:

  1. mightily forgetting all which will forget him (emptying our soul of emptiness) priming at every pore a deathless life with magic until peace outthunders silence
  2. }rest{
  3. i see thee then ponder the tinsel part they let thee play
  4. from Silence; of Nothing
  5. O visible beatitude sweet sweet intolerable!
  6. Negative Silence (detail)
  7. [ULTRA]—infra
  8. what neither is any echo of dream nor any flowering of any echo (but the echo of the flower of Dreaming)

There is, i hope, some semblance of catharsis running through the cycle, and despite my above description of the nature of the music, there’s also a great deal of beauty – and, at the last, peace – to be found along the way.

Crónica are releasing 間 as a limited edition cassette (containing a miniature bonus track hidden at the very end of side B, which encapsulates the essence of the entire cycle) as well as a digital download. Further details and information can be found on the Crónica website as well as their Bandcamp page. i also have a small supply of the cassettes, so if you’d prefer to buy them directly from me (£7 plus postage), then just send me a message either from here or here.

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Mix Tape #44 : Spring

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For my April mix tape, i’ve gone for a seasonal theme, exploring music that references and/or alludes to aspects of spring. While all the seasons are, by their nature, in a continual state of flux, i’ve personally always tended to think of spring and autumn as being ‘transitional’, more obviously progressing between opposite poles of light and warmth. Therefore, i’ve opted for a quite polarised collection of music, some of which can be heard from a cheerful, upbeat, thank-god-it’s-not-winter-anymore angle (Syd Dale, Barbara MorgensternJohn ZornThe Bad PlusDeerhoofVeljo TormisHenry ManciniC Duncan) while others are more reflective and contemplative (Clint Mansell, Wendy CarlosGalina GrigorjevaKim CasconeGreg HeadleyAndrew LilesClara Iannotta, frostbYte, Haruomi Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki & Tatsuro YamashitaHelen GrimeKeith BerryMichael OlivaShane CarruthScott WalkerPaddy Kingsland). Brian Reitzell is something of an odd one out, in full-on sinister mode, while John Oswald‘s madcap overclocked version of the Rite of Spring is one of my favourite sections from his gleefully demented Plunderphonics album.

Starting the mix, and at half-hourly intervals, i’ve indulged my love of birdsong by including some (from the British Library‘s collection) that are particularly appropriate to the season of spring in the UK, beginning with a wheatear followed by a nightingale, a swallow and finally a cuckoo, which brings the 90 minutes of seasonal sonification to an end. The mix tape can be downloaded or streamed below; here’s the tracklisting in full, including links to obtain the music. The cover artwork is a photograph i took in the early spring of 2012, at Painswick Rococo Gardens; those of you who know your flowers will recognise, carpeting the ground, a multitude of snowdrops, a long-established symbol celebrating the season of spring. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Skin (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50

…this is the room’s essence
not being
now look closer
mere dust
dust is the skin of a room
history is a skin
the older it gets the more impressions are left on its surface
look again…

These words, spoken by the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s 1975 play The Ghost Trio, were “the absolute catalyst” for the work with which i’m ending my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders, Skin. It’s another of her works about which i’ve written previously, following its UK première at HCMF 2016, though as will be clear from that article the extent to which i was knocked sideways by the piece didn’t exactly lend itself well to writing anything beyond a relatively superficial marvelling at its nature and impact. It’s very good, therefore, to return to Skin and explore it a little closer and deeper. Completed in 2016, it’s the first of her works to feature a solo voice and a sung text, in contrast to the three previous occasions (mentioned in my previous article) when she’s used small groups of voices in an essentially timbral/textural role. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 4)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Before i conclude my survey of the available recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i want to flag up some omissions. There are three works that i’m not able to discuss at this point as i haven’t yet got hold of copies of the discs on which they’re featured: rubricare (2005) which is on Harmonia Mundi’s About Baroque double album, as well as CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995) and company (2008), included on the 1996 and 2008 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik CDs. If and when i eventually obtain these discs, i’ll review them together at a later date. There’s also one other piece of hers that’s been released very recently, which i’ll be discussing in my final article in this Lent Series.

Saunders’ earliest acknowledged composition is Behind the Velvet Curtain, a work for trumpet, piano, harp and cello completed in 1992, available on a recording by – yet again – Ensemble Musikfabrik, as part of the Musik In Deutschland 1950–2000 series. There’s something sketch-like about the piece, almost a kind of testing of certain ideas – ideas that would turn out to have great significance in her work – in order to experiment with their behaviour and operation. The most obviously nascent idea exhibited by the piece is an emphasis on certain pitches, acting as roaming focal points which the four players continually follow and assemble around. There’s a playfulness about this, with each shift in the focus being initiated – ‘suggested’ might be a better word in most cases – by one of the players, becoming the basis for a short episode of varying clarity. Read more

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