Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Erkki-Sven Tüür

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One of Estonian’s best-known composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, makes his second visit to the Proms this evening, for the UK première of his work for strings Flamma by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (he was last heard at the Royal Albert Hall in 2003, with the Concerto for Violin). Like most of his fellow Estonians, Tüür’s music is rarely heard in the UK, so it’s a superb opportunity for audiences to experience his particular approach to composition (anyone expecting something similar to Arvo Pärt is in for a shock). As preparation for tonight’s performance, here are his answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Erkki-Sven for his responses. Read more

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New releases: Miguel Angel Tolosa, Giulio Aldinucci & Francis M. Gri

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Ephimeral is a recent release of electronic music by Spanish composer and sound artist Miguel Angel Tolosa. Tolosa first got my attention in 2015 with Loner, his superb collaboration with Ingar Zach (which ended up on my Best Albums of 2015) and this disc has got me just as excited. That title, though i’m unsure whether the spelling is implying something specific, hints at the fact that half of the ten pieces on the disc are very short, barely clocking two minutes’ duration. Some are a bit too ephemeral for their own good, but this is due simply to the fact that what Tolosa is doing feels too interesting to be curtailed like this. ‘Musgo’ (Moss) and ‘Allá lejos’ (Far away) are cases in point, the former an intense, dense noise-based texture within which clear bands are detectable as well as different behavioural elements – some rumbly, some granular – with a clear sense of restraint shown in the lower frequencies, while the latter is characterised by a glitched, regular pulsing in the midst of a throbby floating texture. ‘Tropismos’ (Tropisms) and ‘Pálida y móvil, sombra’ (Light and mobile, shadow) are even shorter, together lasting less than three minutes, but they go even further in presenting assertive ideas that are instantly engaging. Keeping these four pieces as brief as this is clearly Tolosa’s point, so one must be content to relish and revisit their fleeting moments; in ‘Pálida y móvil, sombra’ (which lasts 72 seconds), Tolosa is even sufficiently courageous to allow a substantial portion of silence to intrude. There’s truly something marvellous and mysterious going on in these miniatures.

What makes their brevity uncomfortable is because Tolosa’s soundscapes feel instinctively meditative. They’re not really ‘ambient’ in the familiar sense of that word – they’re too consistently interesting for that – but their immersive qualities are considerable. This is music to bathe in. Read more

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Proms 2017: James MacMillan – A European Requiem (European Première)

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James MacMillan’s latest religious blockbuster, A European Requiem, was given its first performance in Europe at the Proms a couple of days ago. The piece is a little over a year old (premièred in July 2016 in Oregon), and although its concert hall life has taken place in the midst of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU, it was of course composed prior to the onset of that madness. MacMillan has therefore been in the unfortunate position of having to stress that his work is not in any way a response to the UK’s ongoing political inanities. Instead, his concern is very much more generalised, not to say vague; he speaks of the piece looking back to the requiems of Brahms, Fauré and Verdi, and if it responds to anything specific, it’s to Roger Scruton’s book The Uses of Pessimism. Whether or not MacMillan believes ‘Europe’ (however that term is defined) to be ‘dead’ (ditto) he doesn’t say, though he evidently holds the view that it has lost something, which he describes as a “culture of mercy and forgiveness”.

Is there any compelling proof that Europeans are less merciful and forgiving than they were in past generations? Is this a malaise not suffered beyond the bounds of Europe? Regardless of these questions, there are rather more pressing concerns to grapple with in A European Requiem, before one even makes it to any potential subtext and its implications. Read more

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Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

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It’s quite unusual to be sitting down to enjoy the Proms première of a piece you already know quite well. But that was the case with Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, which received its first UK performance a couple of days ago by Swedish sopranos Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Gaffigan. Fifteen months ago, when reviewing its CD release, i found Sirens to be deeply problematic, so it was good to be able to revisit the piece afresh, in a new performance.

As the title suggests, the work’s theme is taken from Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus as he seeks over a ten-year period to return home to Ithaca, to be reunited with his family. One of the more memorable trials he faces is confronting the Sirens, dangerous beings who entice sailors to their doom with intoxicatingly lovely music. Following advice from Circe (who, in an another memorable scene earlier, temporarily turns half of Odysseus’ comrades into pigs), they survive the encounter by stuffing beeswax into their ears, blocking out the music, though Odysseus, evidently of the ‘look but don’t touch’ inclination, has himself tied to the ship’s mast in order to experience the music while being unable to act upon it.

To experience Hillborg’s Sirens, in a literal sense we the audience assume the role of Odysseus (referred to by his Roman equivalent of Ulysses in the text), and Hillborg – or, rather, the singers and orchestra – become the Sirens. One’s response to the piece entirely depends on the extent to which you either are or aren’t ‘seduced’ by it. i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Nowy Teatr, Warsaw: Wojtek Blecharz – Body-Opera

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At the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the world première of Body-Opera by Polish composer Wojtek Blecharz didn’t exactly go to plan. Located at The Hepworth Wakefield – and set up somewhat hurriedly in the aftermath of the awarding of The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture that had recently taken place – an ensuing electrical fault caused a cluster of power points to fuse and melt, leading to the abandonment of the performance. As a consolation prize, the audience was treated to a short excerpt. From the composer’s perspective, it appears to have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Listening to him talk about the piece a couple of weeks ago, prior to its second performance at the Nowy Teatr in the Mokotów district of central Warsaw (a beautiful building converted from a warehouse for refuse vehicles), Blecharz clearly believes the problems experienced at Huddersfield were ultimately beneficial. He spoke about not seeing the work as ‘closed’, and to prove the point he has subsequently taken the opportunity to develop it further, in the process greatly expanding it from one to almost two hours’ duration. Developed through a pair of previous works, Transcryptum (2013) and Park-Opera (2016), Blecharz has a very specific outlook and purpose for Body-Opera. He wants to shift the focus from the performer to the audience, creating what he describes as a “shared contemplation of sound”.

To this end, picture the scene: neatly arranged in the four quadrants of the space were 100 mats, one for each member of the audience, with accompanying blankets and pillows. Within each pillow, a loudspeaker, channelling sound directly into the ears and skull of its supine recumbent. Beside the mat, a small black box containing sundry paraphernalia for use during the piece. Across the middle of the space, in one direction, a collection of large suspended metal thundersheets, in the other, something akin to a catwalk with a collection of percussive accoutrements. And above the space, in the centre, a large screen upon which various abstract shapes and film clips appeared. Blecharz’s urge to involve the audience – removing the division between them and the stage – stems from a desire to restore a social or communal aspect that he believes to be lost from conventional operatic production. But the word ‘opera’ in the work’s title is clearly intended to connote the original meaning of the word, the plural word “work”, in addition to its specifically theatrical implications. Blecharz’s Body-Opera consists of a similar collection of discrete, contrasting works that together comprise the whole. What exactly that whole is, or is intended to be, is somewhat harder to articulate. Read more

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New releases: John Wall & Mark Durgan, John Edwards/Mark Sanders/John Wall

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know how fascinated i am by the music of John Wall, and the last couple of months have seen two new releases featuring Wall alongside some his most long-standing collaborators.

In collusion with Mark Durgan is Contrapt, a 39-minute sequence of pieces culled from free improvisations the duo made over a three-year period, from 2012 to 2015. In Wall’s case, ‘culled’ would seem to be precisely the right word. i’ll say more about this when discussing the other disc, but the fact that three years’ worth of improvisations can be distilled down into not much more than half an hour says something to the way in which Wall approaches the editing process (in all of Wall’s collaborations, he is responsible for the editing of the material).

There are instances, particularly in Wall’s more recent output, when the different tracks on a disc can feel disconnected from one another, like separately-filmed scenes placed side-by-side to form a movie demarcated by jump-cuts. But not on Contrapt. Here, the seven tracks become segments of a larger, integral whole, cross-referential both specifically (in terms of material) and generally (behaviour and timbral palette). One of the most striking qualities displayed throughout the disc is one of physicality. Electronic music so often sounds like what it is – a stream of 0s and 1s that, whatever their lineage may be, reside within and emerge from the processing circuits of a computer. But throughout Contrapt there’s a vivid sense of objects (whether real or virtual) being wielded, handled, struck and otherwise manipulated, sometimes shape-shifting into tubular noise formations, substituting impacts with turbulence. As ever, the relationship between pitch and noise is a fascinating one. It’s easy to focus on the fragmented, filigree surfaces, or get swept along on the torrential streams of burbling grit and glitter (which i’ve previously likened to ‘alien data’) but within and around them broader sonic events take place. Underlaid low tones appear in the eponymous first segment, distant and ephemeral but present nonetheless, whereas in ‘Rapt’ pitch is used more overtly, forming lovely gliding tones that spiral spontaneously out from the main texture before being absorbed back into it. Read more

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Proms 2017: Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum (World Première)

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Last autumn, at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference, composer Julian Anderson presented a paper addressing what he described as “the problem of professionals involved in modern music denigrating and otherwise attempting to devalue the music they are supposed to support”. The paper – which unfortunately i’ve not yet been able to read (anyone have a copy?) – was titled ‘Selling Ourselves Short: Inturned aggression and group self-contempt in the modern music sector since 1973’. As it happens, i was born in 1973, and while i doubt Anderson had myself in his sights, after i’ve written the following review, i suspect he may well do.

His new piano concerto, The Imaginary Museum, was given its world première at Wednesday’s Prom by Steven Osborne with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. Cast in six movements and lasting around 25 minutes, the piece is by far one of the most insubstantial and ineffectual bouts of professional noodling masquerading as music that i have ever encountered. Read more

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