It’s Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark today, the closest the country gets to a national day, so i thought i’d mark the occasion with a piece by one of the country’s best-known composers that i’ve been spending time with lately. It’s a re-thinking by Per Nørgård of one of his earlier works, Remembering Child, a viola concerto written in 1986 in commemoration of Samantha Smith, the 13-year old American girl who became famous for contacting Yuri Andropov to express her fears about the possibility of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. Material taken from that piece, in conjunction with some “nocturnal sketches”, resulted in a new double concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra simply titled Three Nocturnal Movements.
Concertos, whether composers intend them to or not, inevitably raise the question of the nature of the relationship between soloist(s) and orchestra, with concomitant aspects of influence and power-play, the individual pitted against the mass. But in the Three Nocturnal Movements, the answer to this question is obvious: from start to finish the two soloists are emphatically at the helm of the entire musical argument. This stems directly from a generalised atmosphere of somewhat lugubrious vagueness, from which even the soloists are not exempt. On the one hand, it’s apparent that violin and cello have something important to say, from the outset tripping over themselves to articulate it (literally, the two lines overlap each other throughout). Yet on the other hand, it’s also apparent that a predetermined sense of direction is seemingly very far from anyone’s minds. Pensivity reigns. Read more
The latest crop of releases from Canadian label Empreintes DIGITALes has proved as thought-provoking as ever, offering extremely diverse approaches to electronic music, with similarly varied results. Léptidoptères, a new 40-minute cycle of music by composer Monty Adkins in collaboration with recorder player Terri Hron, takes its inspiration, as the name implies, from families of butterflies and moths. The relationship between the various recorders used and the electronic sounds is deliberately flexible, allowing Hron scope for improvisation both materially and structurally. Selections from a distinct palette of sounds are triggered randomly, creating a ‘habitat’ for Hron, which are subsequently shaped by envelopes that, in Adkins’ words, “focus on specific families or combinations of families of sounds”. The first thing to say is that Léptidoptères is generally at some remove from the ambient aesthetic that’s characterised the majority of Adkins’ work in recent years. That in itself is a welcome and interesting development. In its place is a soundworld more spontaneous and unpredictable, where one’s listening focus is drawn primarily to the shifting, moment-by-moment articulations and textural shadings. The relationship between acoustic and electronic is well-balanced, neither predominating overall, taking turns to assume predominance in the foreground. Read more
Last week saw the centenary of the birth of American composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt continues to be a neglected figure, and personally speaking, the anniversary served to remind how little i know of his music and how rarely i’ve encountered it over the years. Those in a similar situation will no doubt be interested in the Babbitt Centenary Concert taking place tomorrow evening at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space in New York. The concert, which will also be video-streamed live, is being given by the NY-based Cygnus Ensemble, and features two works of Babbitt’s – including Swan Song No. 1, written specifically for Cygnus in 2003 – alongside music by students and colleagues of Babbitt, all world premières. There’ll also be a pre-concert interview with soprano Bethany Beardslee-Winham, for whom Babbitt composed numerous works, including Philomel, Vision and Prayer (also being performed in the concert), Du, and A Solo Requiem.
The complete programme is listed below; more details can be found at the Cygnus website and the live stream (which is free) will be available at livamp.com/cygnus. The concert starts at 7:30pm local time, which means a late night for those outside the US who want to catch it as it happens, but for everyone else it’ll be available to stream afterwards at a more congenial hour.
Milton Babbitt – Swan Song No. 1 / Vision and Prayer
Charles Wuorinen – Cygnus
Paul Lansky – Just Once
Konrad Kaczmarek – Toggles and Triggers
Jonathan Dawe – Glass Harmonica
Frank Brickle – Ab nou cor / Piazza Piece / City of Orgies
David Claman – To the Master of the Meteor
Despite being a complete movie addict, as well as having nurtured a fascination with soundtracks since i was a boy, movie scores rarely get discussed on 5:4. There have been notable exceptions, and some invariably find their way onto my annual best album lists, but i often find myself pondering whether, despite my love for them, there’s usually something qualitatively inferior about them. To clarify, i don’t believe that film soundtracks, by necessity or nature, are inherently inferior; there’s certainly no reason why they should be, despite the fact that they are, first and foremost, serving a very clear functional role, working in conjunction with visual elements, mise en scène, sound design, narrative and the like, elements usually irrelevant within the concert hall. In this respect, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a film score to prove engaging when heard in its own right, away from these elements. But the best of them don’t merely survive such decontextualisation, they thrive, providing an analogue of sorts of the movie, embodying a more intangible yet no less cogent kind of transposed narrative. In other words, they no longer necessarily follow the chronology of the film’s storyline (many soundtracks, indeed, are not arranged in ‘story order’ but are configured for a satisfying aural experience), offering instead a sequence of portraits, sonic windows into its characters and their situations. Calling them ‘mood pieces’ would be to sell them short, yet there’s more than a whiff of truth to that. Read more
It was announced yesterday that Georg Friedrich Haas will be composer-in-residence at this year’s HCMF, and that among the works receiving their first UK performances will be the Octet for eight trombones. Composed last year, it’s a remarkable piece, commissioned by Hannover Trombone Unit, a group of graduates from Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media, who are clearly up for more than the usual kind of challenge. When composers assemble unusual line-ups of instruments like this, they invariably have a very specific idea in mind that they’re looking to exploit. Uppermost in Haas’ mind, it seems, were the microtonal possibilities not so much with respect to individual instruments but in relation to and conjunction with each other. His use of them, including quarter-, sixth- and eighth-tones, is hugely striking but also borderline sadistic.
It’s been announced this morning that the Composer in Residence at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be Georg Friedrich Haas. His work has been an occasional feature at HCMF in the past, nowhere more spectacularly than in the 2013 UK première of in vain, a piece concerning itself with endless states of transition, with an added air of theatricality through having all of the lights in the performance space extinguished at various points.
HCMF 2016 will include three UK premières: Klangforum Wien will present The Hyena for ensemble and narrator (featuring the composer’s wife, Mollena Williams-Haas), the Ardittis – who else? – will be performing the Ninth String Quartet, while the Hannover Trombone Unit will take on Haas’ Octet for Eight Trombones, composed last year. All three of these performances will be taking place in the opening weekend, ensuring the festival begins with a hefty wallop.
Tickets for these events will go on sale later this month. With this year’s Proms promising little more than lumbering predictability and blandness, it’s encouraging to have a much more exciting prospect on the horizon. More info about HCMF in due course.
Portrait concerts are rarely so eye-opening or indeed eye-popping as BCMG’s for the composer Benedict Mason given at the CBSO Centre on Sunday evening. The point of such concerts is obvious, but it’s hard in hindsight to determine whether or to what extent this one really demonstrated a coherent idea of its subject. In some respects, they hadn’t made this an easy objective, featuring just two works by Mason bookending music by Charles Ives.
The first, Nodding Trilliums & Curve-Lined Angles, a work commissioned and premièred by BCMG in 1990, and directed on this occasion by Ilan Volkov, has timbre as an overriding concern. The six movements are both characterised by and named after the respective sources that dominate them: Xylophones, Rattles, Drums, Toys, Claves, Vibraphone. They act a bit like windows opening out onto vividly depicted, self-contained worlds, and despite their generally conservative character, with echoes of Stravinsky here and there, these worlds are convincing and enticing. By turns one encounters exhilaratingly motoric jollification; ticklish music pieced together from an array of nervous tics; terminally unstable music that, due either to ineptitude or inebriation, keeps falling over; an apparent sunrise over an impossible zoo, the gentle, mellifluous context of the former filled with strange ululations, calls and whistles of the latter; an exercise in engineered misalignment, triggered and exacerbated by the four percussionists walking around the space like politicians clamouring for support, advocating wildly different policies on tempo; and finally a place of the purest magic, where everything has turned to liquid, dripping, flowing, splashing and glinting as its music sloshed around the space, coloured by the work’s most complex harmonic palette. Read more