Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 1)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Alongside the individual pieces i’m focusing on in this Lent Series, i’m also going to be providing an overview of as much as possible of Rebecca Saunders’ music that has been released commercially. When i started planning this series of articles last autumn, my perception was that there wasn’t very much of her music available, but investigating more thoroughly has revealed that around half of her compositions to date – 28 pieces – have been released on CD and/or digital formats, though in some cases the recordings are a little tricky to track down. i’m going to start by looking at three pieces that make for an interesting comparison with the pair of works i’ve explored so far. Read more

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Electric Spring/Ambient@40

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A quick, last-minute heads-up about Huddersfield University’s annual blow-out celebrating all things electronic, Electric Spring, which starts this evening and runs until Sunday. This year’s programme is typically diverse: Philip Thomas and Colin Frank will be performing works for piano, percussion and electronics, Freida Abtan will present a 21-minute audiovisual work “inspired by the logic of dream narrative”, while Rodrigo Costanzo, Brian Crabtree and Angela Guyton will explore improvised pieces, some of which involve dynamic lighting and video. The concerts are once again supplemented with opening acts, from Aaron Cassidy, Sam Gillies, Katy Gray and Owen Green, plus a couple of late-evening shindigs from the BaconJam collective and Sebastien Lavoie. As usual, it’s a mix of names i know and plenty i don’t, so it promises to be an exciting and unpredictable adventure. All concerts are free, and start at 7:30pm in Phipps Hall, in the Creative Arts Building. Full details on the Electric Spring website.

The Saturday evening concert ties in with the Ambient@40 conference, which runs from Friday to Saturday. The conference promises to be a fascinating investigation, with a multifaceted collection of papers and performances exploring ambient from aesthetic, strategic, influential and many other angles, topped off with a keynote from none other than Ocean of Sound author and Brian Eno collaborator David Toop. The Saturday evening concert features a variety of music connected in different ways to ambient, by Robert Mackay, Rupert Till, Kristina Wolfe, Szafranski duo, Tim Howle and myself. i’ll be presenting new live versions of two of my indeterminate works, February 12, 2013, which has not been heard before, and February 24, 2013, originally created for the Imperfect Forms Kenneth Kirschner ebook project. The full programme for the conference, including abstracts for all the papers and presentations, can be viewed on the Ambient@40 website.

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Rebecca Saunders – murmurs (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50

Since the trace is not a presence but the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself, it properly has no site; erasure belongs to its structure. And not only the erasure which must always be able to overtake it (without which it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance), but also the erasure which constitutes it from the outset as a trace, which situates it as the change of site, and makes it disappear in its appearance, makes it emerge from itself in its production.

Got that? This quotation from Jacques Derrida is one of the texts Rebecca Saunders uses in the notes that precede the score of her 2009 work murmurs. The piece is one of several she has composed that she calls a ‘collage’, in this case one for ensemble but described as being “of seven parts”. This is a reference to the number of discrete musical “sound surfaces” – Saunders’ term – that are deployed throughout the piece, comprising five soloists: bass flute, oboe, bass clarinet, violin, and piano (player 1), and two duos: piano (player 2) and percussion, and viola and cello (a total of nine players, not 10 as erroneously indicated in numerous online sources). Saunders’ use of the word ‘collage’ is a useful descriptor for the way these entities are deployed as well as the way they relate to one another, though both are more complex than they seem at first. Read more

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ionnalee – Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten

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The fact that i’ve only written about Swedish musician Jonna Lee‘s music very occasionally belies the fact that i feel she’s one of the most inventive singer-songwriters at work today. This has been the case from the outset of her revamped career in late 2009, when she was posting anonymous YouTube videos that got everyone wondering who on earth was creating this stuff, through her three albums as iamamiwhoami, all of which have featured towards the top of my Best Album of the Years lists: kin in 2012, bounty in 2013 and Blue in 2014. Since then, she’s undergone something of an enigmatic identity shift, combining her old and new personas into ionnalee, a hint that her work is now a bit more personal.

Her new album, Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten, is released today. i’ve been listening to it a lot throughout this week, and while it’s still early days in terms of really getting to know its fifteen songs, first impressions indicate that, despite her name change, they’re a clear continuation and development of the characteristics that made her music as iamamiwhoami so fresh and exhilarating. Above all, i was struck again by the way that although Lee uses conventional verse-chorus structures in her songs, they never sound remotely formulaic. That’s partly due to the creative ways that structure is used, confused and occasionally abused in her work, but mostly down to her unique mixture of irresistible beat and bass combinations and anthemic choruses, presented with utterly forthright conviction. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – traces (UK/Austrian Premières)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so to mark this milestone the 5:4 Lent Series will this year be dedicated to her music. Over the course of the next six weeks, i’ll be looking at a number of her pieces in some detail, as well as providing a survey of her work as represented by CDs and downloads. Although Saunders is British born, her music is neglected in the UK; with the exception of Huddersfield, which has consistently provided a platform for her, performances in Britain are infrequent, and premières – notwithstanding last month’s at the Wigmore Hall, a real rarity – are virtually non-existent. It’s perhaps not surprising that Saunders’ music should be better known on the continent, particularly in Germany where she has long resided, but it’s disappointing (though not surprising) that one of the UK’s most renowned and radical compositional figures should be so ignored on her home turf. Furthermore, there has been relatively little serious discussion of her work, so my hope is that this series can go some way to improving that situation.

i’m going to begin with traces, a work that originally dates back to 2006 but was revised in 2009, a process that bumped it up from being for chamber to symphony orchestra. One reasonably expects different performances of the same piece to shed new light and tease out extra details, but in the case of traces that’s true to a surprising degree. i first got to know the piece from the UK première at the 2009 Proms, but some time after i heard a broadcast of the Austrian première and realised i hadn’t really got to know it at all, as it sounded so different. More recently, there was a third opportunity to hear the work when it was performed in Glasgow in 2015 (possibly the Scottish première), which only confirmed the fact that there’s something about traces that makes it seem almost entirely reinvented with each new performance – or, and this is perhaps more pertinent, that there’s something akin to a game of Chinese whispers going on. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – The Night-Sea Journey (World Première)

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To conclude this weekend i’m returning to the music of Helena Tulve and to another world première, which took place last November during one of Estonia’s main contemporary music festivals, AFEKT. A 17-minute work for saxophone, percussion and piano, in a way all one needs to say about it is encapsulated in its title, The Night-Sea Journey. The music is entirely directed toward the implied narrative of that title, inhabiting a nocturnal world of shadows and moonlight, progressing – in my mind, anyway – across water. At least, that’s one way of hearing it, taking the title literally.

Heard in this way, the piece conjures a foreboding, difficult soundworld. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe its music as lyrical – it is, abundantly – yet of the blackest, most brooding kind, drenched in uncertainty and anguish. Initially, there’s a sense of the trio huddled together, not so much playing as making tentative suggestions: a simple piano idea based on oscillating octaves, air noise through the sax, soft suspended cymbal rolls. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything at all, yet in light of where the piece goes from here, in hindsight it’s like lighting a touchpaper. Read more

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In memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson

Posted on by 5:4 in Commemorations | 3 Comments

First encounters can be unforgettable. Mine was in 2006, and it was the result of an entirely random purchase of an entirely random imported music magazine (German, i think) that contained a disc featuring a cluster of forgettable audio trifles plus a music video. When i hit play on that video, time suddenly started to slow down, and i became transfixed and deeply moved by the enormity of the music’s unusual mix of melancholy and beauty. The music was ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden death has been reported in the last few hours. He was just 48.

i can’t claim to be an expert in Jóhannsson’s music. i love IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, the album of which ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim’ is the stunning final track, and i know a smattering of his other solo works. Being a movie addict, i’m also fond of the film scores of his that i’ve encountered thus far – particularly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – though as i still haven’t yet seen Sicario and Prisoners there remains much for me to explore. i’m certainly not going to miss The Mercy, which has just been released in the UK and has a Jóhannsson score, and there’s a couple more films still to come that feature his work.

Even though there’s a great deal of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music that i have yet to encounter, all i’ve heard thus far has testified to a composer with a unique sensitivity, capable in both his studio work and film scores of creating the most nuanced and above all human music, never contrived or ordinary, with an immediacy that i find genuinely uncanny. From the heart to the heart, indeed. i was reflecting on Jóhannsson last autumn, specifically how he had been replaced in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which i think was unfortunate – i would have loved to have seen that movie with a Jóhannsson score (it would certainly have been far more inventive than Hans Zimmer’s ersatz Vangelis knock-off) – as well as the mutual decision by both Jóhannsson and Darren Aronofsky to refrain from creating a score for Aronofsky’s mother!. Considering that mother! turned out to be one of the most brilliant films not just of 2017, but ever, i was deeply impressed by a composer who recognised that there’s a time not to make music, that sometimes what’s needed is just the gentlest whiff of something that may not even be recognised as deliberate sound, which can speak with infinitely greater force and authenticity.

In so many ways Jóhann Jóhannsson has impressed me since that unexpected first encounter nearly 11 years ago. i’m shocked and very sad indeed that he’s no longer with us, but i’m determined to make sure that i now get on with listening to everything else that he made while he was with us. i’ve no doubt there’ll be many more wonderful encounters to come. Rest in peace, Jóhann.

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