Back to my Lent Series, & a rather beautiful work for voice & electronics by the Romanian composer Ana-Maria Avram. Also a pianist and conductor, Avram was born & studied in Bucharest, before moving to the Sorbonne in Paris to pursue a PhD in Musical Aesthetics. Avram directs the Hyperion Ensemble with her husband Iancu Dumitrescu, & together they promote themselves as composers of ‘hyper-spectral’ music, an extension of spectralism encompassing aspects other than just the harmonic, such as timbre & dynamics, & which is particularly interested in how sound operates within the live performance environment. She works extensively with electronics, & her compositional interests can be heard to good effect in her 1998 work Nouvel Archae for “computer-assisted” voice. Read more
Festivals acquire a significant part of their character from geographical context, & London Contemporary Music Festival could hardly have picked a better location for their three-day exploration of the music of Bernard Parmegiani. Second Home, a new performance space in Shoreditch, is just off the road—& thereby infused with the smells & atmosphere—from Brick Lane, a perfect environment for Parmegiani’s music, laden with its own unique blend of spice, heat & fragrance. Parmegiani’s death late last year was more than just a profound blow to fans of acousmatic music, it was a better-late-than-never wake-up call to the realisation that the entire world of electronic music, in all its multiplicitous guises, had lost one of its most forward-looking practitioners, blessed with a combination of imaginative & technical skill largely unmatched by his contemporaries (& many of his successors). That wouldn’t sound like such a bold statement if more people were aware of the astonishments to be found in Parmegiani’s music. Hot on the heels of BEAST’s celebration last month, LCMF have provided considerable additional momentum to the urgency for an in-depth re-appreciation & appraisal of Parmegiani’s output, an appraisal that surely cannot fail to reveal him as a compositional pillar of the twentieth century, & perhaps electronic music’s most radical visionary to date. Read more
As it’s St Patrick’s Day, who better to feature next in my Lent Series than one of the most brilliant voices in Irish contemporary music, Jennifer Walshe. In appraising Walshe’s work, it’s impressive enough to consider just the seemingly boundless intricacies of her imagination. Famously, Walshe has fabricated the existence of a group of composers under the umbrella collective Grúpat, each with their own very extensive back-stories & discrete artistic personalities. Many of Walshe’s compositions are attributed to these Grúpat figures, pseudepigrapha that demonstrate her remarkable breadth of compositional interest. But equal to this imaginative power is Walshe’s virtuosity as a vocal performer; it’s not always clear what on earth is coming out of her mouth (or indeed why), but such questions are hard to formulate when one’s grappling with her incredible dexterity & stamina, both of which have practically become the stuff of legend. Read more
Next in my Lent Series is a piece by a composer whose work i’ve encountered precisely once. Born in 1970, Alison Kay‘s studies took her from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to the Royal College of Music to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama & finally to Sussex University; since 2004 she’s been back at the RCM in a teaching capacity. Beyond this, neither i nor, it seems, the internet, knows much about Kay or her music, save for a short piece included on a 2001 NMC release, & this instructive quotational nugget:
I enjoy the physicality of music. In composition, the potential to craft and shape structures from the most intimate timbral nuance to the most intense, dramatic structural gesture opens endless possibilities. I try to create visceral, three-dimensional music that has the potential to encompass exciting rhythmical impetus, rich timbral and harmonic language, textural shapes and surfaces, and a sense of varying movement and weight through time. I always start from the perspective of the physical properties of instruments and performance spaces. I see the interpretation of my music by performers and listeners as an integral part of the compositional process.
The next piece in my Lent Series celebrating women composers is by the Israeli Chaya Czernowin. Czernowin left Israel in her 20s, studying first in Germany & then the United States (her teachers included Brian Ferneyhough & Roger Reynolds), where she remains today, in Boston. One of the features of her work that i find most engaging is the way it absolutely demands repeated listenings. That’s not to suggest one can’t take away anything of value in a single hearing, only that one’s always aware there is very much more to be grasped, & Czernowin’s work is sufficiently interesting that there’s plenty of motivation to return to it on later occasions. Her 1996 work Afatsim is just such a piece.
Composed for an ensemble of nine players, spaced apart as much as possible, Czernowin subdivides the players into four groups, or to use her term, “composite instruments” (see programme note, below). However, due both to the way these ‘instruments’ are presented & also the way their materials are intermingled, shared, focussed upon & so on, means that it is hard, sometimes impossible to perceive the groupings in an obvious way. This obfuscation seems to help rather than hinder the piece, however, the textures of which are often difficult to get hold of, particularly at the beginning. The soundworld of Afatsim is one where instruments are not, for the most part, played according to convention, establishing a kind of aural ‘no man’s land’ where sources feel unknowable, save for the persistent early squeal of a recognisable bass clarinet. Read more
Today marks the first day of Lent, & as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion & standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom & harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:
why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why Read more
Judging by the majority of CDs that have been sent to me recently, contemporary music is seeing a surge in recordings of works highlighting solo instruments. The collection i have received occupies different regions of the avant garde, from the most familiar & accessible to its forbidding outer fringes. Somewhere in between, yet the most impenetrable of them all, is James Erber‘s ‘Traces’ cycle for solo flute, released by Convivium Records. Erber has long struck me as a kind of non-mainstream Alexander Goehr, in that his music is always rigorously argued, its logic unassailable (a point Erber has always hammered home via his voluble essays & programme notes), yet never really opening itself up to allow the listener in. In short, its intellectual prowess crowds out its emotional potential, & in this respect the ‘Traces’ cycle is no different. There’s greatest interest to be found in the first of the three movements, where a low, increasingly rhythmic element makes incursions into the music’s ongoing melodic thrust (involving some nice fluttertongue writing &, after its fraught high point, some enigmatic ruminative finger tapping). But the second & third movements ramp up the intensity such that it becomes relentless, demonstrating an unstoppable, determined conviction that ends up nullifying both the effect & the interest. A curious extended stasis towards the end, involving soft high notes, is a welcome break, but the piece is no less inscrutable for it. In many ways, the trio of smaller works on the disc make a much stronger impact, but strongest of all is flautist Matteo Cesari‘s playing; it may be hard to decode Erber’s code, but Cesari does at least ensure its intricacies are presented with utmost clarity.