New releases: Stefan Fraunberger, Michael Moser, Morton Feldman, John Wall

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Easily the most sonically remarkable new release to have passed through the jukebox in the last month or so is Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’ by the Austrian sound artist Stefan Fraunberger. This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. Having wheezed into life, the organ’s reanimated corpse unleashes barrages of chords that constantly sound unnaturally forced, only sustaining as long as its innards are being ‘squeezed’ (try singing a note for far too long and you’ll get the idea). Weird tangential pitches and upper harmonics regularly bleach these chords, even occasionally suggesting there’s a melody trying to escape from beyond the grave; elsewhere the struggle (for both man and machine) becomes so intense that vast dissonant slabs of compressed noise erupt. On the one hand, it’s shambolic and desperate, but there’s an uncanny beauty both to Fraunberger’s seemingly absurd actions and to the, frankly, amazing results. Read more

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Don’t believe the hype: some brief reflections on ‘greatness’

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i want to respond briefly to Philip Clark’s article ‘Where have the great composers gone?’, as i both agree and in some ways completely disagree with Clark’s unique blend of perspicacity and polemic. When i was an undergraduate, there were frequent references to and discussions about the notional ‘path’ of becoming a composer. This path, put simply, involved getting some notable performances at music college, attending lots of new music concerts in order to make useful connections, and then—the ultimate goal—to get a publisher, supposedly the compositional equivalent of obtaining tenure. During my Master’s degree, this had evolved to the point where most composers agreed that being allied to a publisher was quickly becoming a pretty old-fashioned idea, due partly to the development and ease of typesetting and self-publishing/promotion, and also due to the fact that, by now, the majority of the larger publishing houses were assimilating more and more mainstream music to ensure their profit margins, reducing their desirability to those of a more avant-garde persuasion. During the last few years, i’ve heard repeatedly from published composers (by those same largest publishing houses) about how indifferent, unhelpful and for the most part worthless publishers are to them, and i personally don’t know a single composer for whom getting hitched to a publisher has even been considered for their list of career aims.

i mention all this partly because Clark repeatedly indicates, correctly, that the idea of ‘greatness’ is inextricably intertwined with the world of publishing hype, but more because this evolving outlook brings to earth with an almighty crash the naïve notions from my undergrad days that were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) concerned with the goal of becoming an ‘established’ composer, and one day, with a favourable wind and no small amount of luck (and/or nepotism), maybe even a great one. Perhaps those notions were once vaguely realistic–or, come to that, real—but i doubt it. Composers surely don’t seek greatness, however that’s defined; indeed, speak to many composers privately about their aspirations and experiences, and what you encounter most often is a kind of humble gratitude that their work is being performed at all. Delusions of grandeur, even aspirational delusions, don’t even come into it. And a good thing too; there’s surely something a little odd—and, i believe, misguided—about the desire for greatness, whether that desire comes from composers themselves or from their audiences and commentators. Clark speaks of the glory days of the Huddersfield Festival, when one could hear the music of illustrious figures and occasionally even rub shoulders with them (or, in Clark’s case, stand behind them at an ATM), but speaking personally, every year during HCMF i get precisely the same thrill from being able to engage with music—and, almost always, the composers—that i deeply admire and who, to my mind, are important artists making not insignificant contributions to the development of our craft from a huge variety of perspectives. From the last few years i would (off the top of my head) single out Naomi Pinnock, Aaron Cassidy, Dai Fujikura, Maja Ratkje, Jakob Ullmann, Laurence Crane, Liza Lim, Jonty Harrison, Peter Ablinger, Wieland Hoban, Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen, Eliane Radigue, Monty Adkins, Hèctor Parra, Chiyoko Szlavnics and, yes, even Jürg Frey who, unlike Clark, i would—and did—recognise when i saw him.

Are these composers great? i can only find myself wondering whether that question is even remotely relevant. Certainly, some of those i’ve just named i regard as among the most compelling composers working today. But the very fact that i named so many of them (and that list is absurdly short) underlines the fact that there is a very great deal of fantastic, significant, far-reaching and long-lasting music being composed today, and while i don’t necessarily want to equate ideas of greatness with elitism, seeking to apply the word ‘great’ inevitably starts to limit the field and, thereby, limit the music. For me, and i suspect for many others, both composers and audiences, what’s more to be celebrated is the diversity of angles from which musical expression now comes and the concomitant multiplicity of compositional triumphs. Composers don’t face, as Clark contends, an “existential crisis”; composers are doing what they’ve always done, navigating their own way forward both with regard to their own development and to wider threads of compositional (and extra-musical) thought. Some may find this diversity disorienting or even disheartening, but to my mind it’s that very diversity that i consider to be genuinely ‘great’. This is surely more meaningful than the kind of nostalgic wistfulness that yearns to slap the epithet on one or two figures for special lionisation. Let’s leave that to the publishers, and let’s all remember not to believe a word of it.

Proms 2016: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3 ‘Jesus Messiah, save us!’

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Just when you’ve concluded the Proms are little more than schmoozing, emollience, accessibility and tradition, along comes Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphony No. 3. Regarded superficially—and, tragically, this is the way the majority of commentators regard her work—Ustvolskaya’s music is the antithesis of comfort. She eschews most of the conventions of western art music, typically bringing together unusual groupings of instruments (often timbrally and registrally incongruous) which articulate themselves from within the strictures of an utmost rigid rhythmic grid. Again regarded superficially, she is the ostensible apogee of the cool, aloof, unemotional, detached composer. Which leaves the question of why four of her five symphonies, as well as the three ‘Compositions’ (together covering a period from 1970 to 1990, the last 20 years of her composing life), should be subtitled with overt religious quotations, extended to recited texts in the symphonies. Is it irony? mischief? sacrilege?

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Cheltenham Music Festival: A New Jerusalem

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Wednesday evening in Tewkesbury Abbey, in the company of Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, was an encounter with a particular kind of British ubiquity. The music of Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Judith Weir and James MacMillan were brought together in an evening focussing on “A New Jerusalem”, four composers whose work, in the church and concert hall respectively, has become (for good or ill) highly pervasive. In the case of Parry and Howells, hearing them beyond the context of liturgical function revealed above all how much their approach to choral writing persists both in the legacy of 20th century church music and beyond as well as the ongoing choral evensong tradition, which for many years has sounded less like a modern expression of faith than a nostalgic clinging to values (both musical and theological) held by an ever-decreasing minority. Hearing them side by side made for an illuminating comparison. What Elgar was to the orchestra, Parry was to the choir, his music never solely about the text or topic at hand but with omnipresent obeisance to a sense of grandiose occasion looming over everything. (Put another way, what Elgar was to pomp, Parry was to circumstance.) Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Ritual in Transfigured Time, Ukes and Moogs

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For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended (one assumes), it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity. Read more

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Jürg Frey – Accurate Placement (World Première)

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A piece that’s been quietly beguiling me of late is Accurate Placement, by the Swiss composer Jürg Frey. A 16-minute work for solo double bass, it received its first performance last November, at one of the few HCMF concerts i didn’t get to. As my articles from that time will have made clear, my response to Frey’s work was, in hindsight, stimulatingly problematic and inconsistent, oscillating wildly between frustration and elation at its differing hues of diffident certitude. Accurate Placement falls somewhere right of centre on this continuum. Read more

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