The Start of an Era: Bristol New Music 2014

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts | 3 Comments

Ordinarily, finding yourself traipsing along cold, dark, damp streets from concert to concert of cutting edge music, you’d expect the time to be late autumn & the place to be Huddersfield. Except this time it was the streets & venues of Bristol that were the focus of attention, for the inaugural Bristol New Music festival, three days packed with an impressively diverse line-up of the great & the downright remarkable. Bigging it up last week, i opined that it looked all set to become the HCMF of the south west, & there is, as it turns out, a connection, as Huddersfield supremo Graham McKenzie has provided what he described to me as “curatorial advice” in getting BNM up & running. Yet while in some ways his fingerprints could be detected all over the weekend, Bristol had an atmosphere & a vibe quite distinct to that of Huddersfield. It’s not insignificant, i think, that the word ‘new’ has been used in favour of ‘contemporary’, the latter carrying with it stronger connotations of the concert hall. BNM did have plenty of concerts taking place in familiar concert halls—the festival is, after all, a collaboration by five of Bristol’s principal venues: Arnolfini, the Colston Hall, St George’s, Spike Island & Bristol University—but more often than not, they either weren’t presented as, or didn’t feel like, familiar concert hall events. Often this was rather refreshing; sometimes, not so much.

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts | 2 Comments

The spring concert calendar is starting to fill up with some real delights, with three forthcoming festivals being particularly mouth-watering. The most imminent is Bristol New Music, occupying a long weekend beginning this Friday. In many ways, BNM looks set to be a kind of HCMF for the south-west. Ensemble musikFabrik will be presenting Harry Partch‘s rarely-heard And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, using recreated versions of Partch’s home-made microtonal instruments, in addition to ‘interpretations’ of Frank Zappa. There are also major new works from John Butcher, Keith Tippett, Christian Marclay & Christian Wallumrød, the Bristol Ensemble performing works by Tansy Davies & Matthew Schlomowitz, as well as concerts by clarinettist Gareth Davis, Roly Porter & the wonderful Ellen Fullman. Throw in Quatuor Bozzini with a première by Claudia Molitor & a cluster of installations, & you’ve got the makings of a seriously exciting three days of music. Full details can be found here, & there are some tasty savings to be had if you go for the day passes.

At the end of next month—serendipitously placed so soon after the recent Pioneers of Sound festival in Birmingham—is London Contemporary Music Festival‘s three-evening celebration of the undisputed big daddy of acousmatic music, Bernard Parmegiani. Each evening is jam-packed with Parmegiani goodness—including documentary films alongside the music—with diffusion coming from such luminaries as Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison & Daniel Teruggi, & there will be live sets from Rashad Becker & Florian Hecker. Considering how exhilarating these concerts are going to be, the tickets are wonderfully inexpensive (a weekend pass will set you back a mere £20); details here.

Yet another weekend of sonic glory is coming in early May with the 2014 Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. They certainly seem to be ramping up both the diversity & the ambition, promising no fewer than nine world premières, from the likes of John Oswald, Michael Finnissy, Georg Friedrich Haas, Christian Wolff, Richard Youngs & James Clapperton. This year, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will find itself rubbing shoulders with, among others, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, vocal group EXAUDI & the Icelandic collective S.L.Á.T.U.R.. Details have only begun to emerge in the last few days; everything you need to know can be found here, & if you fancy a jaunt to Reykjavík in April (no?), then details of the Icelandic Tectonics Festival—with special focus on Alvin Lucier—can be found here.

All being well, i’ll be at all the above (possibly not Reykjavík), doing my best to navigate through & report back on the proceedings. Despite Britain’s interminably awful weather at the moment, in the concert halls at least 2014 has a decidedly sunny outlook.

Valentine Weekend: Laura Bowler – Irresistible Demands of the Flesh (World Première)

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To bring this inverted Valentine Weekend to an end, i’m turning from the intimacy of duets to the large-scale, inflamed overload of the orchestra. Laura Bowler‘s Irresistible Demands of the Flesh is an audacious exploration in sound of the theatrical tenets of Antonin Artaud, specifically the desire to push performers to a point of extremity in order to unlock something fundamentally true. The piece (the title of which appears to be from an entry about Michel de Ghelderode in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre) in part achieves this through an avoidance of conventional notions of idiomaticism & performance, seeking to place the members of the orchestra emphatically outside their traditional comfort zones. It does much the same thing for the listener, coming across not so much the product of an act of composition as a 12-minute slab of spontaneously seething organic sound, elemental & overwhelming. Read more

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Valentine Weekend: Gavin Higgins – Three Broken Love Songs

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My Valentine Weekend continues today with an intimate survey by Gavin Higgins of a failed relationship, his Three Broken Love Songs, for basset clarinet & piano. Composed in 2006 for the clarinettist & composer Mark Simpson, the work falls into three movements, bearing demonstrably blunt titles. ‘…Two bottles of wine later…’ takes as its starting point the soaring opening glissando from Rhapsody in Blue (which, coincidentally, was premièred just over 90 years ago), but sidesteps Gershwin’s dancing airiness in favour of material that initially broods & swoops. Glissandi colour the clarinet’s melodic intentions repeatedly, indicative of an ongoing process of aural inebriation that culminates—responding to a heavy sequence of piano pounding—in a series of ecstatic shrieks. A climax indeed. Read more

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Valentine Weekend: John Rodgers – Amor

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It’s Valentine’s Day, so i’m going to extend the mood through a long weekend with three pieces that each provide a uniquely twisted reflection on the subject of romance. First is one of the more fascinating duets i’ve heard in recent years, Amor for flute & oboe by the Australian composer John Rodgers. The piece is taken from his larger work ‘Inferno’ (a commission from the Adelaide Festival and ELISION), described by Rodgers as a “musico/theatrical translation of Dante’s vision of hell”. The subject matter of Amor is to be found very early in Dante’s work, in the region he described as ‘upper hell’, specifically its second circle; here, Dante locates the Lustful, whose punishment consists of being pummelled for eternity by an immense wind. A whole host of famous lovers—including Dido, Helen, Paris & Achilles—are found here, but Dante’s attention (in one of the most famous scenes of the entire Divine Comedy) centres on the couple of Francesca da Rimini & Paolo. Their illicit love affair undermined Francesca’s (politically-motivated) marriage to Paolo’s brother Giovanni Malatesta; Giovanni was widely nicknamed ‘the lame’, which possibly accounts for Francesca’s roving eye—yet the paramours’ pleasure was short-lived, as after a few years Giovanni murdered them both. Read more

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An acousmatic revelation: BEAST – Pioneers of Sound, Birmingham

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts | 2 Comments

Last weekend Birmingham was treated to what will surely be regarded as one of the highlights of the 2014 electronic music calendar. Presented by Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), Pioneers of Sound was a 3-day festival primarily exploring works by three of the central figures of acousmatic music, François Bayle, Francis Dhomont & Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special & so poignant was that only two of that triumvirate could be there to present their music; the absence of Parmegiani (who died last November at the age of 86) was conspicuous & keenly felt throughout the weekend.

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HCMF 2013 revisited: James Clarke – 2013-V (World Première)

Posted on by Simon Cummings in HCMF, Premières | 1 Comment

If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title & the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title & content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation & spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year & a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications. Read more

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