i’ve been catching up lately with some of the more recent releases from NEOS, who for a long time have distinguished themselves as not just one of the most forward-looking labels, but easily one of the most fecund, putting out at least one major release every month, often in the form of absurdly impressive box sets. Among this acute embarrassment of riches are a pair of discs featuring music by Helmut Lachenmann, recorded at the 2014 Musiva Viva weekend. Both of them are refreshing, challenging and mesmerising in roughly equal measure, and are highly recommended.
The first is devoted to Lachenmann’s 1985 work Ausklang, the subtitle of which – “music for piano and orchestra” – indicates it to be not exactly adhering to conventional notions of the concerto. It’s nothing of the kind, in fact, exploring instead the idea of sustaining sounds from the piano beyond their natural resonance, or as Lachenmann puts it, a “variety of attempts to prevent the material set in vibration by an impulse … from dying away”. That makes Ausklang sound pretty straightforward, but it really isn’t. The relationship between piano and orchestra is not inherently hierarchical, actions from the former being responded to by the latter. The orchestra (which includes a piano of its own) often can be heard to anticipate, foreshadow or even inspire ideas that then transpire in modified form on the solo instrument. And while there are of course a multitude of instances where pitch, rhythm and other aspects of musical behaviour are resonated, echoed, imitated and otherwise extended by the orchestra, to say that these instances are always obvious, clear or even apparent would be wrong. Indeed, there are several occasions when the music appears to occupy two simultaneous layers, undertaking more of a duet than a back-and-forth. So the emergent complexities of Lachenmann’s rather simply stated intentions are considerable. Read more
It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced. Read more
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.