Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Joanna Lee

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This afternoon’s Prom moves away from the Royal Albert Hall to Holy Sepulchre church, for a concert given by the BBC Singers. The programme is an all-English selection of works, finishing with the world première of At this man’s hand by Joanna Lee. In anticipation of that, and to provide a bit of background and context to the work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Joanna for her responses. Read more

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Fermata

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Today’s my 20th wedding anniversary, so i’m going to be away for the rest of the week enjoying a completely music-free time with my best Beloved. i’ll be catching up on all the Proms premières as soon as i’m back.

Proms 2019: Benjamin Beckman – Occidentalis (European Première); Detlev Glanert – Weites Land (UK Première)

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Until last Sunday, among the new works premièred at the Proms there hadn’t been what we’re all used to hearing: namely, a short, ebullient romp that gets a concert up and running. And then, a couple of days ago, the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, directed by Antonio Pappano, gave the first European performance of Occidentalis, by US composer Benjamin Beckman. In his response to my pre-première questions, Beckman spoke about writing a piece that was a way of getting away from the vocal music he had been writing (as part of an opera), and the programme note explains the title by reflecting on the historical use of the term and its associations with travel – going west – as well as connotations of immigration with regard to the USA.

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Summartónar 2019 (Part 2)

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As i previously remarked, one of the most (and one of the only) disappointing things about my first experience of the Faroe Islands’ Summartónar festival was the almost complete lack of music by Faroese composers. The inclusion of Kristian Blak – artistic director of the festival – mitigated that to an extent, and of course i’m conscious of the fact i only attended six says out of more than 90, but i nonetheless came away with a limited sense of what contemporary music in the Faroe Islands is like. During my time there, the emphasis was on an initiative called North Cultitude 6263; begun last year, it seeks to bring together cultural activities from the countries located at the latitudes of 62-63 degrees. The initiative is not simply about showcasing each other’s work, but also to foster collaboration: Ensemble 6263 is a newly-formed group who, performing for the first time at this year’s festival, included players from Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The plan is to expand this further until all countries around the world at these latitudes are included.

Some of these performers came from the Icelandic ensemble Caput, who gave a concert of their own in Tórshavn’s Nordic House, a much larger and more lavish counterpart to the one in Reykjavik. i’d been highly impressed by Caput when hearing them in action at the Dark Music Days in January, and while their concert on this occasion was a somewhat more relaxed affair (a free lunchtime event), if anything it proved to be even more involving. This was largely due to the choice of repertoire, Caput bringing together a collection of works that all had a tendency to move slowly and meditatively. To this end, the concert was dedicated to three figures who have died in recent times: flautist Manuela Wiesler, and two Icelandic composers whose music book-ended the occasion and brought to it an intense solemnity. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson‘s Kveðja, which opened the concert, featured episodes of freedom on flute and viola, flying gently out from a steady rhythmic grounding in the harp. It sounded akin to a processional, but one looking steadfastly up at the sky rather than down at the ground. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Benjamin Beckman

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This morning’s Prom concert, given by the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, features the first European performance of Occidentalis by one of the orchestra’s Apprentice Composers, Benjamin Beckman. To provide some background and context, here are his answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Ben for his responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: Huw Watkins – The Moon (World Première)

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There are times when it seems the Proms is incapable of commissioning a new work without foisting upon the composer some theme or connection that they are required to incorporate into the piece. The festival’s ongoing theme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was brought to bear on yet another new work, Huw WatkinsThe Moon, which received its world première last night. Watkins opted to sidestep notions of spaceflight and technology in favour of something more romantic, turning to 19th and 20th century poetry about the moon, by Shelley, Whitman and Larkin, for inspiration.

The moon landings took place half a century ago, but listening to The Moon you’d be forgiven for thinking it was composed when notions of getting to the moon were still but a pipedream, yet to make it even to a drawing board. While not exactly pastiche, there’s an overt (even ersatz) early 20th century vibe permeating a great deal of the work. Clean, basic, straightforward, undemanding, every idea outlined in the musical equivalent of black marker pen; even before a few minutes have passed, it all sounds incredibly timid and tired. Watkins’ musical language has always tended towards the conservative, but i’m not sure it’s ever been articulated so overtly as here.

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Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance

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In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.

One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter. Read more

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Summartónar 2019 (Part 1)

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When did you last listen to music from the Faroe Islands? Who’s your favourite Faroese composer or group? For many, i suspect, those questions would likely be impossible to answer, and until recently – with the big exception of Eivør, one of my very favourite singers – i would have been in the same position. That is, until a few weeks ago, when i took up an invitation to spend some time at Summartónar, the Faroe Islands’ annual music festival.

To say that Summartónar is different from most music festivals is not simply an understatement but a reflection of the broader fact that pretty much everything in the Faroe Islands is, to some degree, different from everywhere else. Its location, a remote spot in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway; its composition, a cluster of 18 principal islands (all but one inhabited) none of which is longer than around 30 miles, rising vertiginously from sea level to form austere, alien hill ranges; its language, rooted in Old Norse and today resembling a curious mash-up of Icelandic and Danish. Though clearly related and connected to a wider community, it’s nonetheless a place that feels uncannily dislocated.

Nothing in the Faroes is ordinary, and unsurprisingly this extends to its cultural life too. Even before i’d experienced anything first hand i’d heard how, due to its relatively small population (around 51,000), musicians there tend not to fit into neat generic or stylistic categories but instead take part in a wide variety of musical forms, encompassing and combining folk, jazz, classical, pop and the avant-garde. Such a pluralistic outlook as this can be seen in the make-up of Summartónar itself. Its events, most of which gravitate around the capital city of Tórshavn, generally fall into one of three broad descriptors: folk / singer-songwriter, jazz / world, and classical / experimental; beyond these are cultural evenings (about which more in a moment) and concerts taking place out of doors and in caves. Despite its remoteness and relatively small size, there’s clearly a wealth of music-making going on in the Faroes, which perhaps explains why the Summartónar festival lasts for no less than three full months (June to August). Read more

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Proms 2019: Outi Tarkiainen – Midnight Sun Variations (World Première)

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Composers generally tend to shy away from admitting their music to be overtly autobiographical, but in the case of the latest Proms première, by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen, the piece is a clear extension – a manifestation, even – of the composer’s way of experiencing the world. In her answers to my pre-première questions, Tarkiainen wrote of her synaesthetic response to harmony, perceiving it as “various colour-shades of light, and my compositions make extensive use of modality, of ‘scales of light’, as it were.” This perception in turn feeds into a larger inspiration drawing on her experiences of arctic light, which is “rich in hues and varies steeply from one season to another”. Her new work, Midnight Sun Variations, can therefore be regarded as something of a double portrait, capturing an aspect of the natural world, and of herself: “In this work I am very openly what I am.”

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Outi Tarkiainen

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This evening’s Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic, includes the world première of Midnight Sun Variations by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen. In anticipation of that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note of the piece. Many thanks to Outi for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

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The last two premières at the Proms have both been concertos: Alhambra, the third violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, and Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul, a double-trumpet concerto by Swedish composer Tobias Broström. It’s been interesting to note how their overall approach to narrative is, at a fundamental level strikingly similar, while their respective modus operandi could hardly be more different.

As the name suggests, the inspiration for Eötvös’ Alhambra is the eponymous ninth century palace in Granada. By his own admission, Eötvös hadn’t been to visit the Alhambra before writing the piece (his first time in Granada was at the work’s world première earlier this month); the concerto is instead an imaginary walk around the palace complex and grounds. The nature of this walk, emphatically led by the violin throughout (with a scordatura mandolin as an occasional sidekick), is capricious. Its outlook is divided, inexorably drawn back and forth between impulses that tend to the reflective and the jaunty. The oscillating effect of this is demonstrated in the opening minutes: the violin’s opening solo, ostensibly searching, is suddenly forgotten in a flash of flamboyance; withdrawing inward, the music then opens out into a high register burst of lyricism, surrounded by chiming percussion – something that will recur several times during the piece – before descending into a rollicking sequence of pure merriment with the rest of the orchestra.

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Music Beyond Airports

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In February last year, Monty Adkins and i organised Ambient@40, the first academic conference devoted to ambient music, which took place over two days at Huddersfield University. The conference was designed to explore the history and legacy of the genre forty years after the release of Brian Eno’s pivotal album Ambient 1: Music For Airports, and i’m delighted to announce that an accompanying book, Music Beyond Airports: appraising ambient music, is published today. Co-edited by Monty and me, the book features lengthy chapters by many of the contributors from the conference, approaching ambient from a host of different angles encompassing musical, psychological, societal, cultural and gender aspects, among many others.

Here’s a summary of the chapters:

  1. David Toop – How Much World Do You Want? Ambient Listening and its Questions
  2. Ambrose Field – Space In The Ambience: Is Ambient Music Socially Relevant?
  3. Ulf Holbrook – A Question of Background: Sites of Listening
  4. Richard Talbot – Three Manifestations of Spatiality in Ambient Music
  5. Simon Cummings – The Steady State Theory: Recalibrating the Quiddity of Ambient Music
  6. Monty Adkins – Fragility, Noise, and Atmosphere in Ambient Music
  7. Lisa Colton – Channelling the Ecstasy Of Hildegard Von Bingen: “O Euchari” Remixed
  8. Justin Morey – Ambient House: “Little Fluffy Clouds” and the Sampler as Time Machine
  9. Axel Berndt – Adaptive Game Scoring with Ambient Music

Taken together, i believe they provide a fascinating and provocative investigation of what ambient is, how it works, and its wider implications, connotations and meanings for composers and listeners alike.

Published by The University of Huddersfield Press, the book is available as both a print edition (£30 from Gazelle Book Services and Amazon; currently only £26.70 from Wordery) and a free ebook download (PDF/EPUB/MOBI) from the Huddersfield University website.

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Proms 2019: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Metacosmos (UK Première)

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Performed last Monday by an orchestra combining students from the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, conducted by Edward Gardner, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Metacosmos is a work i know quite well. Anna and i discussed it at length during our Dialogue together, and i explored the piece further following its first performance in Iceland during the Dark Music Days earlier this year. As i’ve noted on both those previous occasions, the work is somewhat different from most of the rest of her output due to its construction. Instead of opting for her usual kind of convoluted, unpredictable structure, Metacosmos is a complex but recognisable binary diptych, its latter section a refashioned – both shortened and lengthened – version of its former. The two sections are each set in motion via loud accents and a deep drone E, culminating some time later in a B-flat chord after which a melancholic melody emerges (in C-sharp minor the first time and B-flat minor the second time). That kind of structure is interesting in her work for all sorts of reasons, particularly when considering the inspiration for Metacosmos is to do with being “drawn into a force that is way bigger than yourself”, Anna citing the ultimate example of this as a black hole. Read more

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Proms 2019: Hans Zimmer – Earth; Alexia Sloane – Earthward (World Premières)

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The most significant love-hate musical relationship of my life has been – and continues to be – with film scores. Few idioms have the power to elevate, charm, horrify, astonish and amaze us more while at the same time displaying the irresistible propensity to eschew all originality and imagination in favour of the most derivative bluster and cheese. For me, the epicentre of this love-hate relationship has for many years been centred on Hans Zimmer. He’s someone whose work i’ve appreciated and enjoyed in the past: i think True Romance was the first time i really took notice of his work, and what he did for Inception is hard to beat. But his most recent work – especially his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, each film of which Zimmer has emphatically marred – has been an ever more reductionist descent into some of the most unoriginal, flaccid, bombastic and manipulative histrionics ever created: musica generica, made all the more horrendous to experience due to its inherent terror of ever falling silent. It’s not just nature, it seems, that abhors a vacuum; Zimmer has clearly convinced himself that if the noises he’s generating (yes: generating, not composing) stop for even a moment, then all hope of maintaining the film’s impetus is lost.

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Proms 2019: Zosha di Castri – Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (World Première)

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Many of the Proms seasons in recent years have begun with a world première, and that was again the case this year. In 2018, the opening work commemorated the end of World War I, whereas in 2019 the topic of commemoration is altogether more triumphant: humanity walking on the moon. However, Canadian composer Zosha di Castri‘s piece, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, premièred by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis, is concerned with more than just celebration; she writes in her programme note of “the noticeable lag in enthusiasm for further exploration since the late ’60s”, so the tone of the work is therefore somewhat conflicted. It’s worth noting that the broad scope of di Castri’s conception wouldn’t suit the kind of short, concert-opening firework that the Proms has often commissioned to get the season going, and it’s nice to see – as with last year – that the opening night première has been allowed a more generous duration, in the case of this piece around 17 minutes.

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Alexia Sloane

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This afternoon’s Prom is the first of the festival’s usual parallel strand taking place at Cadogan Hall. Primarily featuring early choral music performed by vocal group VOCES8, the concert also includes the first performance of Earthward by British composer Alexia Sloane. As an introduction to the piece, and to Sloane’s work in general, here are their answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme for the piece. Many thanks to Alexia for their responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Zosha Di Castri

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This evening, the 2019 Proms festival begins in earnest. As on many previous occasions, they’ve opted to get things started with a world première, which this year is by Canadian-born, US-based composer and sound artist Zosha Di Castri. As an upbeat to that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions together with the programme note for her piece, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, which will be given its first performance by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis. Many thanks to Zosha for her responses.

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Fermata

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i’m setting off this morning for the Faroe Islands, where i’ll be spending the next six days exploring some of Summartónar, their annual music festival. While i’m away, the first of this year’s series of ‘pre-première questions’ articles with composers featured at the Proms (which begins on Friday) will appear. And of course there’ll be a lot more words about both of these festivals to follow as soon as i’m back.

Esa-Pekka Salonen – Cello Concerto

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One of my highlights from last year came at the end of the summer, during the final concert at the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm. An occasion given over to celebrating composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (which i reviewed elsewhere), the concert included a performance of Salonen’s Cello Concerto given by soloist Truls Mørk and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by – who else? – the composer himself. Originally premièred in early 2017, i didn’t know the piece beforehand but came away enormously impressed at its language and attitude. So, while it’s often true that new works can take an irritatingly long time before becoming available, it’s great to see a CD of this piece has been released, performed by the work’s dedicatee, Yo-Yo Ma, with Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Having the opportunity to spending time with the piece again, at length, has clarified things enormously. The first and most important thing to say is that it’s just as deeply impressive on repeat listening as it was on first contact in the Berwaldhallen last September. Salonen writes in the accompanying notes about not being bothered about tradition, and that “a concerto does not suggest a formal design the same way a symphony does”. At first glance, that seems an odd assertion to make considering his own concerto is structured in three movements that broadly conform to the convention of fast-slow-fast. Yet that’s about as conventional as the work gets, and it’s more accurate to characterise the content of those movements as the product of improvisatory whim and élan. As such, structure comes across more like an ’emergent property’ than a clear, prefabricated design underlying things, and even that fast-slow-fast description, when immersed within the piece, seems to be of secondary importance at best. Read more

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Juhani Silvola – Post-biological wildlife

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We might call it “conjectural anthropology”. What i’m referring to here is music (or any art, for that matter) that seeks to fabricate and/or otherwise be inspired by fictitious notions of organic life and activity. We find examples of this in, among other places, the strange electronic languages being uttered in the two volumes of Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species, in the wildly theatrical simulated-ethnographic rituals and dances of Paul Dolden’s Histoires d’histoire, and in the dual attempt to question and (re)invent an ancient magic in Gabriel Dharmoo’s Futile Spells. While none of these works seeks to effect real plausibility – focusing instead on the inherent joy arising from playing fast and loose with conceits of pseudo-reality – it’s surprising how effective and authentic they can feel, and as a consequence, how much we want them to be real. Similar feelings arise when listening to Post-biological wildlife, the latest album from Norwegian composer Juhani Silvola.

Rather than conceptualising a long-distant past, Silvola’s outlook is staunchly forward, looking ahead to a futuristic vision that may or may not involve people. Or, at least, ‘people’ as we currently understand the term: the “post-biology” at play here is evidently a convoluted amalgam of human, animal and machine elements. Opening track ‘Ritualrytmikk’ (itself a lexicological amalgam) brings together an assortment of percussive taps and beats amidst electronic blips and bleeps such that the distinction between them, though always evident, seems irrelevant. Occasionally surrounded by deep gongs and high chimes, the ritual aspect of the music is articulated with ice-cold simplicity and clarity, forming a nice counterpoint to the capricious irregularity of its rhythmic patterns. More relaxed but connected in parallel, ’20th Century Meditation’ turns metric regularity into a steady state textural foundation over which gentle plinky-plonky melodic fragments meander. As such, it evokes the progenitors of ambient music (hinted at in both parts of its title, “20th Century” and “Meditation”) while sounding unequivocally new. The title track is equally committed to just a single idea, setting up a habitat within which ersatz bird- and insect-sounds proliferate, joined later by gusts generated by an artificial storm. Read more

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