New releases: ensemble/orchestral

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The majority of new releases to have come my way recently have featured music for ensemble and/or orchestral forces, each disc of which is usually devoted to the work of a single composer. The opportunity to scrutinise an individual’s work in great depth at times turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. This is definitely the case with NMC’s recent disc of Helen Grime‘s music, Night Songs. i’ve enjoyed and written about Grime’s work on a number of occasions, but this album—which, helpfully, arranges its contents in chronological order—contextualises those works such that rather glaring problems instantly emerge. Chief of them all is the extreme narrowness of Grime’s compositional language, with regular recourse to precisely the same mannerisms and tropes in pretty much every piece. Take a drawn-out melodic line, put it mid-register and not too loud, adorn it with sharp staccato notes (woodwind or pizzicato strings) and far, far beneath it have grumbling deep bass phrases. This kind of thing has worked for Oliver Knussen, and on the basis of this disc, Grime seems to feel compelled to introduce this same device into everything she writes. It’s an irritation that gets compounded by the timidity of Grime’s orchestral writing; not merely her safe, familiar use of the instruments, it’s the lack of anything approximating a release, a true letting-go of control, that makes the majority of the seven works on this disc feel so thoroughly grounded. Striving for equilibrium doesn’t require one to be so equivocal. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Aldo Clementi – Madrigale

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My next blast from the past is a rather lovely work by the Italian composer Aldo Clementi, who died in 2011. Clementi’s interest in both bell-type sounds (music boxes, carillons, etc.) and the notion of self-generating music can be heard to good effect in Madrigale, composed 35 years ago, in 1979. The title would appear to reference the Italian madrigale; originating in the early 14th century, these were usually written for two voices, setting idyllic texts—typically pastoral scenes or expressions of love—and characterised by their use of decoration, particularly melismas. Clementi’s work echoes some of these aspects, composed for two pianists (piano four hands) and tape; the piano is prepared with different materials used in each octave (beyond this Clementi doesn’t make specific demands), while the tape contains a pre-recorded part played by glockenspiel and vibraphone. This combination of metallised and plasticised percussive timbres creates a rich, bejewelled soundworld akin to a large music box, which Clementi reinforces by the heavily mechanical nature of the work’s material as well as its method of execution. In essence, the tape part acts as a click track of sorts, marshalling the pianists through a strict, linear rallentando that continues throughout Madrigale‘s 9-minute duration. At first, the tempo is rapid, pianists and tape creating a dense, swirling cloud-like texture formed from cycling patterns and phrases, but after barely more than a minute the music begins its inexorable, entropic drag, falling away dynamically as its tempo approaches ever closer to zero. Read more

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New releases: electronic

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Turning to electronic music, i want to highlight several recent releases from the Entr’acte label. Founded in 1999 in London but today based in Antwerp, Entr’acte’s output has always made an impression long before any of the music has been heard. Their approach, not unique but certainly unusual among labels seeking to promote new music, has always been to present each release with essentially generic design work and packaging, and a bare minimum of supplementary text. For years, the CDs were actually contained within hermetically sealed packets that required cutting open to access the content; today, they come either in small cardboard wallets emblazoned with their catalogue number or in digipacks with a daub of colour. For all its aloof utilitarianism, there’s undoubtedly something of a pose being struck by Entr’acte, but the way it rejects conventional notions of consumer appeal is an extremely positive thing. Composers are supremely gifted at getting in the way of their own music, in their efforts to seek to demystify its intangibility with tracts of programme notes and contextual disjecta membra. Entr’acte clearly takes the view that such verbiage is a crutch required by neither composer nor audience; a courageous view, certainly, but one supremely vindicated by the quality of their diverse catalogue.
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Proms 2014: the premières – how you voted

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Having closed the 5:4 polls last week, it’s time once again to assess how you voted on each of the 21 premières at this year’s Proms. Having pulled around and crunched the numbers from various angles, here’s a brief summary of what emerged.

Worst New Work

Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace

Yes, exactly. Hands up who thinks that cheap imitations of sounds and gestures from assorted religions will, when idly thrown together, suddenly make everyone realise how silly they’ve been with their endless conflicts and all just get along? Oh put your hand down, Roxanna, you’re just being stupid.

Runners Up

Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory
Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise
Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’

It’s easy to sympathise with the first two of these; neither Dove nor Ranjbaran even approximated an original thought in their respective works—and Dove’s offering is particularly egregious as it masquerades under a phony veneer of nobility, claiming with utter futility to be ‘about’ the theory of its title, a bare-faced lie that would deserve some righteous anger if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious. As for the Prokofiev, i’m still in two minds about it; it’s certainly hobbled by those weak first two movements, but there was some powerful stuff in the latter two.

Best New Work

Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes

For me, it was a toss-up between the Holt and Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor (which narrowly missed out on being a runner up), so this is a result well worth endorsing. On the one hand, there’s a sense that Simon Holt has had more than his fair share of performance opportunities at the Proms—yet, the consistency of his wonderful compositional imagination makes one feel a bit churlish for mentioning it.

Runners Up

Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser
John Tavener – Requiem Fragments
Haukur Tómasson – Magma

A good year for the Scandinavians! Magma was a sensation of free-form but entirely organic material, while Voice verser brought a delirious sense of unhinged expressivity rarely heard at the Proms. As for the Tavener, my preference would have been for Gnōsis; but maybe you heard something in the Requiem Fragments that i didn’t, or were at least more convinced by its jump-cut approach to religious text and sentiment.

Thanks to all of you who voted, it’s fascinating for me to see how you react to these pieces. Opinions seemed less polarised than in previous years, with more works meriting ‘Meh’ votes—for what it’s worth, the piece towards which you felt most indifferent was Judith Weir’s Day Break Shadows Flee, and who can blame you? Perhaps that overall response suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the quality of this year’s premières, and if it does, then i can only agree; there were some undeniably fabulous new works, but what the Proms seems to be crying out for is a revivified engagement with new music that’s rooted in a genuine sense of intrepid exploration: bold, ingenious and daring. The BBC have conclusively proved this year how much they lack this quality; one can only hope that the opposite turns out to be true of the new director of the Proms, whomever that may be.

Mix Tape #31 : Autumn

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For the latest 5:4 mix tape, i’ve opted to explore music associated in some way with this time of year. Autumn is arguably the most poignant of the seasons, the ostentatious eruption of its gorgeous colours militated against by the pointed melancholy of its inevitable transition into the wastelands of winter. My infinitely greater namesake, the poet E. E. Cummings, often indignantly pitted the season against his beloved, despite its beauty:

cruelly,love
walk the autumn long;
the last flower in whose hair,
thy lips are cold with songs

for which is first to wither, to pass?
shallowness of sunlight
falls and,cruelly,
across the grass
Comes the
moon

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New releases: chamber

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The 5:4 doormat has been inundated with a stream of new releases falling onto it through the last few weeks, many of which are outstanding and deserve fuller treatment in due course—but to at least get the ball rolling, here’s an overview of some of the best, starting with chamber music. Read more

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Proms 2014: Gavin Higgins – Velocity (World Première)

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In terms of volume, the Last Night of the Proms ensures the festival ends with a bang rather than a whimper. In terms of musical imagination, originality, provocation and insight, however, the reverse has long been the case, & the event today does little more than put the shit in shitfaced. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the premières commissioned to jump-start this party-cum-concert have for the most part become little more than functional bursts of effervescent froth, limp spurts of aural ejaculate that seek to tick the box of contemporary relevance before sagging back into its usual back-slapping melée of moribundity. Read more

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