Best Albums of 2017 (Part 1)

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i started last year’s Best Albums of the Year list  concerned about whether or not such lists were a good, viable or indeed practical idea. This year finds me with no such reservations: lists are fun, lists are informative and inspirational, lists are just cool, dammit, and above all this particular list – in spite of its unavoidably provisional nature – is a great way to celebrate the most implausibly wonderful sounds that have entered my ears during the last 12 months.

In compiling this list, standard 5:4 rules (which i don’t think i’ve ever shared) apply: a composer or artist can only appear once, and reissues or re-recordings aren’t allowed, so the 35th Anniversary expanded edition of John Williams’ score for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Kraftwerk’s 3-D The Catalogue and Jasun Martz’s Solo Exhibition: The Pillory, all of which would otherwise have appeared in my top 40, have been excluded. Also – and this was an eleventh hour decision – i haven’t included Brian Eno’s Sisters; whereas it’s a truly outstanding example of modern ambient that lives up entirely to Eno’s original ethos while making it sound fresh and new (or, more accurately, demonstrating how it never stopped having the potential to be fresh), it wasn’t a widely available release, given away to a select number of people who had bought Eno’s Reflection app, and only for a limited time. One hopes Sisters might see a proper release at some point, as it really is stunning. So bearing in mind these personal peccadilloes, here’s the first part of my round up of the year’s 40 best albums.

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Ensemble Musikfabrik – Stille, Label Musikfabrik

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Let’s talk about Ensemble Musikfabrik. First off, the German ensemble is responsible for some of the most memorable and fascinating concerts i’ve ever attended. Their performances during the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival remain personal favourites, both the opening weekend concert – including among other things, Georg Friedrich Haas’ I can’t breathe and Marcin Stańczyk’s marvellous Some Drops, both showcasing trumpeter Marco Blauuw – and also the concert based around the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, featuring Claudio Molitor’s hour-long act of sonic wonderment, Walking With Partch. But even more than these, the concert that remains most affectionately in my memory – one of the most exhilarating concerts of my life – was their performance at the one-off Bristol New Music festival in 2014, where the combination of Partch’s And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma with a medley of works by Frank Zappa must rank as one of the finest acts of music-making that the city’s Colston Hall had ever experienced. What all of these concerts demonstrate is Musikfabrik’s generous and warm openness to all forms of experimentation, no matter how weird or ostensibly ludicrous, in conjunction with a level of determination and commitment that’s nothing less than absolute. Only an attitude like this could have led to the Partch instruments being so painstakingly and lovingly recreated, as well as to the development of new iterations of familiar instruments, such as their double-bell brass instruments.

The ensemble’s outlook is mirrored entirely on their recorded output which, more than most, goes a long way to capturing the vivid discombobulation of their concert performances. Their most recent disc, Stille, the twelfth in their ongoing series Edition Musikfabrik, is yet another case in point. It’s true to say that a Musikfabrik concert can and often does involve a certain amount of acclimatisation, and it’s also true for Die Bewegung der Augen by Evan Johnson. As with all four works on this disc, it’s a piece exploring silence, or rather the fact that silence “is never empty” (from Johnson’s programme note). Clearly the by-product of a lot more activity (in one form or another) than is audibly apparent, Johnson’s music here sounds private, not merely behind closed doors but positively internalised and miniaturised, as though we were privy to small-scale activities and actions that would otherwise be entirely oblivious to us. Its little bursts of material surrounded by silence gradually instigate a different mode of listening, one where i came to feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man, becoming smaller and smaller to the point that its tiny sounds and gestures yawned ever more impossibly above me. Beyond this, particularly in the second and third movements, a halting lyrical streak emerges that, in such a pint-sized context, sounds enormously poignant. Read more

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Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Seasonal | 1 Comment

‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that i particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach. i won’t go into my usual level of depth about the disc due to the fact it includes a setting of my own, and while i’ve long regarded objectivity and impartiality to be pretty mythical and irrelevant, for obvious personal reasons i would of course love everyone to go out and support the disc by buying as many copies as possible.

That being said, while music of this ilk is inevitably going to be a somewhat polarising affair, what makes this collection so worthwhile is its general avoidance of the kind of mawkish sentimentality and blank enthusiasm that one encounters in far, far too much Christmas music. In place of the former are broad, rich harmonic palettes, tonal but occasionally wayward. Andrew Cusworth‘s Of a rose synge we is the most sumptuous example of this, as well as being the most externally calm, though everything about it suggests inner joy and ecstasy. Matthew Coleridge‘s short but expansive and beautiful Balulalow is only marginally less lush, flirting with (but, mercifully, not embracing) the kind of harmonic writing redolent of US choral composers. John Turner‘s brave attempt at a new setting of Away in a Manger (retaining the established rhythmic scheme) is simpler, as is Peter Parshall‘s That yongë child, to gorgeously tranquil effect, while another lullaby, Mark Hewitt‘s Silent Night, rather nonchalantly sets out as though it’s nothing to do with the original carol before a number of dropped hints lead to a thorough reworking of it, its harmonies and rhythms both wonderfully convoluted. My own Infant holy, Infant lowly stays true to the original Polish melody (though using the correct original descending line as opposed to the misprinted version that one usually hears), with new harmonies designed to gently emphasise elements of the text.

However, it’s not all blissed-out devotions and adoration. Read more

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Kaija Saariaho – Adriana Songs (UK Première)

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Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää, Suomi!

Today is an important day for the country of Finland, marking the 100th anniversary of their declaration of independence from the Russian Republic. To mark the occasion i’m turning to one of Finland’s most celebrated composers, Kaija Saariaho, specifically to an intense song cycle she composed in 2006. Adriana Songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, began life in Saariaho’s opera Adriana Mater (set to a libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf); of the opera’s seven tableaux, she adapted material from the odd-numbered movements – Clartés, Deux cœurs, Rages and Adriana – to form this four-movement cycle. The subject matter is grave in the extreme: set in the context of war, the character of Adriana is raped by a man from her immediate community, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Yonas. To protect him from the truth, Yonas’ family pretend that his father died heroically, but when the truth emerges, in Yonas’ late teens, he decides to track him down and kill him. Eventually, when Yonas finally confronts his father he discovers the man is blind, and decides to spare his life, returning home to his mother. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Ensemble Grizzana

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | 2 Comments

Consider some of the qualities we might associate with the classical notion of holiness: vulnerable but resolute; at odds with easy, quick and cheap enticements in favour of a focus on that which is intangible and transcendent; superficially boring or stupid or quaint yet holding and exhibiting an absolute, unshakeable faith in its convictions. In many ways this is a fitting description of Magnus Granberg‘s How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?, the first of two world premières given by Ensemble Grizzana on the final day of HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. The fact that we were hearing the piece on a Sunday, and in a former church, only added to the sensation. Both works on the programme were based on a pair of pieces of Renaissance music, Déploration sur la mort de Binchois by Johannes Ockeghem and William Byrd’s Oh Lord How Vain. While the material from those pieces wasn’t directly audible in Granberg’s music, one couldn’t help feeling that what we were hearing was, in roughly equal parts, a distillation, a suspension and an explosion of them. Occupying an archetypal steady state, the music emerged (following a lengthy, centering, silence) via a quiet stream of individual sustained sounds, forming a loose-weave texture seemingly encrusted with both jewels and detritus. While it would be true to say that the work was strikingly, stunningly beautiful – easily among the most lovely things i’ve heard at this year’s festival – yet that same beauty (which, it should be stressed, was sometimes far from obvious) is arguably an incidental, happy coincidence, rather than being the thing that defines it. Though exploded in terms of the separation of the instruments and their ideas, the steady state behaviour unified these individual musical actions, making the work’s constituent sounds seem like an analogue for quantum fluctuations, ephemeral particles appearing from nothing, floating in space for a time before vanishing. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Laura Cannell, ICE + Distractfold + Fritz Hauser + Anne Bourne, Mix Tape

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As i’ve indicated previously, the non-partisan diversity of HCMF is impressively broad these days, and one of the concerts that best exemplified this took place in Bates Mill Photographic Studio on Saturday morning, in the company of Laura Cannell. To describe her as a composer and performer of folk music would be to over-simplify greatly what Cannell did in the six short movements of FEATHERS UNFURLED, receiving its world première. Switching between a fiddle and a pair of recorders (the latter being played simultaneously), each piece took tropes from both folk music as well as earlier musical idioms as the starting point for broader and more personal explorations. All of the works employed drones to underpin them, and in the various fiddle pieces this accentuated the primacy of open strings, which were continually heard as reference points, grounding the music, from which more (care)free ideas could spring and rise. In one of these pieces, Outstretched, this primacy was particularly striking as, due to detuning the instrument, the quality of the drone at first came to resemble an intoning male voice, later lending an unsettling air to the music due to its unexpected gravitas. The final fiddle piece, In The Room Not Passing Through – one of two using a bow with hair going both over and under the strings – moved farthest from its allusive conventions, combining obsessive bowing with extremes of bow pressure (both too much and too little). The sound emanating from the instrument, in conjunction with Cannell’s stylised mode of delivery – involving small, careful movements within a confined performance space – hinted at something magical being invoked beneath the music. In the recorder pieces Untethered and Hollowed, Cannell took on an even more shamanic demeanour, her movements now the ritualised actions of spell-casting, resulting in heavily motivic material in the latter piece, and a strange tonality betwixt minor and major in the former. This concert was a genuinely unexpected treat, proving how alive and adventurous new manifestations of ancient traditions of music-making continue to be. Read more

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HCMF 2017: TAPE, The Riot Ensemble, Ensemble PHACE + Laura Bowler

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Having heard Thomas Lehn’s live rendition of Bogusław Schaeffer’s 1964 Symphony last thing on Thursday night, it couldn’t have been more perfect to have started Friday in the company of four more Polish electronic works, dating from around a decade later. Eugeniusz Rudnik‘s Ready Made (1977) took a collage approach to found sounds, and was primarily interesting in the naively effective way Rudnik used the juxtaposition of these sounds to articulate a sense of internal energy, most obviously in a transition from a floating drone into a burst of Berlioz’s Radetzky March. Krzysztof Knittel‘s 1976 The Worm Conqueror was strikingly different from the grey industriality of Norcet II, heard on Tuesday. His soundworld was like being in vast oceanic depths, where quiet, delicate, tiny sounds floating in silence became the brief bursts of flamboyant colour from bioluminescent fish. This wasn’t only where we began, it also established a broader context of quietude where subsequent outbursts – some of which were enormous (the only time echoes of Norcet II could be heard): muscular, brutalist torrents of stuff sizzling in the space like hot soup being poured into ice water – sounded like aberrations from a path that eventually led back down into the depths. Here, at the last, something allusive could be glimpsed, as if just beyond our reach, before vanishing. Wow. In Daisy Story (1979) by Bohdan Mazurek, the most light-hearted piece in the concert, varying forms of momentum are explored, formed from squelchy analogue mush converted into a rude rhythmic bassline. However, as overtures go it was something of a red herring, followed by free-wheeling quasi-psychedelic ideas and gestures and melodic fragments (made of sine tones) that brought to mind the early work of Kraftwerk that zeitkrazer had revisited during the festival’s opening weekend. Further rhythmic underpinnings emerged, but it was those unfettered improvisational shapes that ultimately dominated and typified the piece. When discussing Bogusław Schaeffer’s Symphony yesterday i spoke of the ‘threatening silence’ endemic to so much early electronic music, which retrospectively acts as an analogue to composers’ grappling to harness new technology. An interesting counterpoint to this could be heard in Tomasz Sikorski‘s Solitude of Sounds (1975), where (again retrospectively; it would hardly have been the composer’s intention) the tape hiss worked both as a ‘shield’ against this silence as well as the means by which the material was animated, like a soft source of ambient electricity. There was something reassuring about its presence, and the way it was shaped around and behind everything else. Speaking of which: slow-moving objects caught between pitch (just) and noise (barely) like dark grey rectangles in a sea of ash. Somehow it ended up as a polarised high/low drone, each pole slowly changing in ways that were impossible to identify. One could almost imagine it as the music of the spheres, underpinning the entirety of the universe. Read more

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