In a little over a month’s time, it will be the 70th birthday of British composer Michael Finnissy, and so this year’s 5:4 Lent Series is dedicated to a celebratory exploration of some of his work. Despite his pre-eminence in many compositional circles, Finnissy remains a distinctly neglected figure, rarely heard at the UK’s more prominent music festivals and stubbornly absent from the repertoire of most of our orchestras and ensembles. He continues to be represented best by the collection of independent groups and ensembles that have always recognised the imagination and radical outlook that epitomise his work, though this inevitably means his music remains unknown to the vast majority of the concert-going public. Over the next few weeks, i hope to shed a little light on the diversity of his output, and in the process perhaps challenge some of the misconceptions—usually concerned with excessive difficulty—that have ignorantly dogged his work. i should point out that i am by no means an expert in Finnissy’s music; it has simply fascinated and moved me repeatedly throughout the last twenty-or-so years since i first encountered it. In addition to the Lent Series, i’ll also be exploring the current catalogue of recordings available of Finnissy’s music, and all being well we’ll be recording a Dialogue together later in the year. Anyone wanting to get a good introduction and overview of the composer’s musical life can find a nicely succinct biography on Finnissy’s own website. Read more
You’d have been forgiven for expecting last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group—titled “Parallel Colour”—to be primarily concerned with harmony, or failing that, timbre. But in fact the overriding connection between many of the six featured works was stark economy of means. It’s a phrase that sounds intrinsically praiseworthy, yet the boundary between music sounding impressively restrained (concentrated) and oppressively constrained (dull, lifeless) is a complex one, infinitely thin and all too easy unwittingly to cross. For Jonathan Harvey, whose short solo clarinet piece Cirrus Light was given an intense and excellently controlled performance by Timothy Lines, despite considerable limits of pitch range, dynamic and articulation, the music never felt anything other than entirely free and unbounded. Read more
The annual 5:4 Lent Series is almost upon us, but in the meantime one of the more striking premières i’ve heard recently is a new work for violin and orchestra from US-based British composer Anna Clyne. The work’s title, The Seamstress, comes from W. B. Yeats’ eponymous poem (see below), where a song is made into a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies”; the garment is subsequently robbed, yet the songmaker rather sanguinely concludes “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Clyne’s song takes the form of what she calls an “imaginary one-act ballet”, with five distinct movements, the last recapitulating the first. The temptation would be to describe it as a violin concerto, but in many ways it really isn’t; the solo violin is by no means more important or significant than the orchestra at all times, indeed for much of the piece there’s a strong sense of duet, with the soloist frequently yielding centre-stage. All the same, the violin certainly acts in ways that could be called catalytic, instigating ideas and often leading the way elaborating them. Read more
It’s the grande dame‘s birthday today, and i’m rounding off my Éliane Radigue long weekend with another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, one that in some respects combines those featured in the last couple of days. OCCAM DELTA IV, for bowed harp, microtonal tuba and cello, dates from 2013, and initially focusses extremely intently on a low C. Once again, it’s a drone in which assorted partials can be heard to differing extents, colouring its timbre; here, though, the drone is underpinned with some octave lower pedal notes from the tuba, rendering the drone itself essentially an overtone on this occasion (again a parallel with The Hafler Trio’s Trilogy in Three Parts, in this case the final part). Read more
For the second day of my Éliane Radigue long weekend, another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, and a particularly austere one. Composed in 2013, OCCAM XI is not simply for solo tuba, but solo microtonal tuba, specifically that of British tubist Robin Hayward. Not that that’s immediately obvious from the music, but then it’s not immediately obvious that a tuba is involved at all.
The work’s 13-minute span falls into three sections, the first of which contains a low F, articulated as a series of fragile fragments, air and vocal noise at the fringes, with both its pitch centre and its overtones undulating slightly, moving between different vowel shapes. The sound is a curious cross between throat singing and a kind of ancient reed instrument—almost, in fact, as though the instrument itself had found sentience and was attempting to speak; decidedly fascinating and unsettling. The second section, around the midpoint, shifts up a fifth and becomes more sustained, the tuba’s sounds much less differentiated but suggesting something more ritualistic, its strangely dogged persistence hinting at some higher purpose, as though casting a muffled incantation. Read more
This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focussed epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more
World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more