HCMF 2016: looking forward some more

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Further information has been made available today about this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, following the announcement in May that Georg Friedrich Haas will be the featured Composer in Residence. Predictably, there’s a great deal to get excited about. The music of Harry Partch will be making an appearance courtesy of Ensemble Musikfabrik, who’ve done so much to promote Partch over the last few years, reconstructing his vast array of weird and wonderful microtonal instruments (their rendition of his And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma at Bristol New Music 2014 was a dazzling testament both to the ensemble’s meticulous care/preparation as well as to Partch’s discombobulating approach to—well, pretty much everything). To expand upon this, the ensemble has commissioned composers to write for these instruments, and will be premièring several of them at this year’s festival, including an hour long work by Claudia Molitor titled Walking with Partch.

Swiss composer Alfred Zimmerlin will be bringing his Stone Orchestra to Huddersfield, and the festival’s fondness for improvisation will this year be entertained by Peter Brötzmann and Gareth Davis, the latter appearing once again in conjunction with the music of American composer/guitarist Elliott Sharp (of whose solo contrabass clarinet piece Silva Silvarum Davis gave a wonderful first performance a couple of years ago). Having brought the festival to an end in recent years, the Arditti Quartet will this time be getting it up and running with an opening night concert alongside contemporary music’s most radical nightingale, Jennifer Walshe, giving the UK première of Walshe’s Everything is Important (which, coincidentally, received its world première in Darmstadt just last night). The Ardittis will also be joining with Klangforum Wien in a concert presenting two major works by Haas, The Hyena and his brand spanking new String Quartet No. 10. The Diotima Quartet will also be appearing, performing new works by Enno Poppe and Sam Hayden, and HCMF regular Richard Uttley is back with music by Haas, Eric Wubbels and Olga Neuwirth, as well as—best of all—a new piece for Fender Rhodes piano by Michael Cutting, whose This Is Not A Faux Wood Keyboard remains a particularly memorable highlight from last year.

Throw in new and recent works from the likes of Rebecca Saunders, Liza Lim, Eva Reiter, George Lewis and John Zorn and HCMF 2016 is already shaping up to be a typically kaleidoscopic and challenging festival. It runs from Friday 18 to Sunday 27 November; full details and tickets are available from the festival website.

Proms 2016: Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie (Symphony No. 3) (UK Première)

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Hot on the heels of one new violin concerto at the Proms, here comes another, this time courtesy of Russian-born, US-based composer Lera Auerbach. But no ordinary concerto, as it’s also subtitled a ‘symphony’, her third, and the involvement of a mixed chorus lends it the quality of both a cantata and a song cycle. Auerbach’s great compatriot Alfred Schnittke also used to mix up idioms in just this way, and aspirations towards his sort of wry take on things (though definitely not his soundworld; more about that in a moment) can be felt in the core of the piece, which goes by the grand title of The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie. The titular minstrel is a role taken on by the solo violin, acting as a peripatetic storyteller, given a literal voice by the chorus. The work’s eight songs are also written by Auerbach, closely modelled on familiar tropes of nonsense rhyme calling to mind Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and even Dr. Seuss.

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Proms 2016: Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before.

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Proms 2016: Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

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There were paradoxes at play throughout Anthony Payne‘s new work for choir and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky, given its première at last night’s Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis. Well, paradoxes is one word for them: inconsistencies and/or anachronisms would be another equally accurate way of putting it. First is the matter of old and new. Aesthetically speaking, Payne’s musical language emanates from the 20th century, a mash-up of idiomatic traits from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton and, occasionally, Britten, all of whom made their presence felt in this piece. Read more

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Proms 2016: Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes (World Première)

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Last week, i finally got round to watching a concert i’d recorded last year celebrating the music of film composer John Williams, featuring highlights from throughout his long career. For better or worse, i couldn’t help recalling that concert again and again during last night’s world première at the Proms of Magnus Lindberg‘s Two Episodes, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In some respects, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Always a demonstrably accessible composer, Lindberg’s work in the last few years has reached more and more into the kind of musical language associated with movie soundtracks (a quality i’ve pointed out with regard to both Al largo and Era). What was surprising, though, was that the piece was entirely conceived to serve as an homage to the work following it in the programme, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Read more

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New releases: Stefan Fraunberger, Michael Moser, Morton Feldman, John Wall

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Easily the most sonically remarkable new release to have passed through the jukebox in the last month or so is Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’ by the Austrian sound artist Stefan Fraunberger. This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. Having wheezed into life, the organ’s reanimated corpse unleashes barrages of chords that constantly sound unnaturally forced, only sustaining as long as its innards are being ‘squeezed’ (try singing a note for far too long and you’ll get the idea). Weird tangential pitches and upper harmonics regularly bleach these chords, even occasionally suggesting there’s a melody trying to escape from beyond the grave; elsewhere the struggle (for both man and machine) becomes so intense that vast dissonant slabs of compressed noise erupt. On the one hand, it’s shambolic and desperate, but there’s an uncanny beauty both to Fraunberger’s seemingly absurd actions and to the, frankly, amazing results. Read more

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Don’t believe the hype: some brief reflections on ‘greatness’

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i want to respond briefly to Philip Clark’s article ‘Where have the great composers gone?’, as i both agree and in some ways completely disagree with Clark’s unique blend of perspicacity and polemic. When i was an undergraduate, there were frequent references to and discussions about the notional ‘path’ of becoming a composer. This path, put simply, involved getting some notable performances at music college, attending lots of new music concerts in order to make useful connections, and then—the ultimate goal—to get a publisher, supposedly the compositional equivalent of obtaining tenure. During my Master’s degree, this had evolved to the point where most composers agreed that being allied to a publisher was quickly becoming a pretty old-fashioned idea, due partly to the development and ease of typesetting and self-publishing/promotion, and also due to the fact that, by now, the majority of the larger publishing houses were assimilating more and more mainstream music to ensure their profit margins, reducing their desirability to those of a more avant-garde persuasion. During the last few years, i’ve heard repeatedly from published composers (by those same largest publishing houses) about how indifferent, unhelpful and for the most part worthless publishers are to them, and i personally don’t know a single composer for whom getting hitched to a publisher has even been considered for their list of career aims.

i mention all this partly because Clark repeatedly indicates, correctly, that the idea of ‘greatness’ is inextricably intertwined with the world of publishing hype, but more because this evolving outlook brings to earth with an almighty crash the naïve notions from my undergrad days that were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) concerned with the goal of becoming an ‘established’ composer, and one day, with a favourable wind and no small amount of luck (and/or nepotism), maybe even a great one. Perhaps those notions were once vaguely realistic–or, come to that, real—but i doubt it. Composers surely don’t seek greatness, however that’s defined; indeed, speak to many composers privately about their aspirations and experiences, and what you encounter most often is a kind of humble gratitude that their work is being performed at all. Delusions of grandeur, even aspirational delusions, don’t even come into it. And a good thing too; there’s surely something a little odd—and, i believe, misguided—about the desire for greatness, whether that desire comes from composers themselves or from their audiences and commentators. Clark speaks of the glory days of the Huddersfield Festival, when one could hear the music of illustrious figures and occasionally even rub shoulders with them (or, in Clark’s case, stand behind them at an ATM), but speaking personally, every year during HCMF i get precisely the same thrill from being able to engage with music—and, almost always, the composers—that i deeply admire and who, to my mind, are important artists making not insignificant contributions to the development of our craft from a huge variety of perspectives. From the last few years i would (off the top of my head) single out Naomi Pinnock, Aaron Cassidy, Dai Fujikura, Maja Ratkje, Jakob Ullmann, Laurence Crane, Liza Lim, Jonty Harrison, Peter Ablinger, Wieland Hoban, Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen, Eliane Radigue, Monty Adkins, Hèctor Parra, Chiyoko Szlavnics and, yes, even Jürg Frey who, unlike Clark, i would—and did—recognise when i saw him.

Are these composers great? i can only find myself wondering whether that question is even remotely relevant. Certainly, some of those i’ve just named i regard as among the most compelling composers working today. But the very fact that i named so many of them (and that list is absurdly short) underlines the fact that there is a very great deal of fantastic, significant, far-reaching and long-lasting music being composed today, and while i don’t necessarily want to equate ideas of greatness with elitism, seeking to apply the word ‘great’ inevitably starts to limit the field and, thereby, limit the music. For me, and i suspect for many others, both composers and audiences, what’s more to be celebrated is the diversity of angles from which musical expression now comes and the concomitant multiplicity of compositional triumphs. Composers don’t face, as Clark contends, an “existential crisis”; composers are doing what they’ve always done, navigating their own way forward both with regard to their own development and to wider threads of compositional (and extra-musical) thought. Some may find this diversity disorienting or even disheartening, but to my mind it’s that very diversity that i consider to be genuinely ‘great’. This is surely more meaningful than the kind of nostalgic wistfulness that yearns to slap the epithet on one or two figures for special lionisation. Let’s leave that to the publishers, and let’s all remember not to believe a word of it.