One of the most beguiling & enigmatic premières i’ve encountered in recent times took place at Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival in March, heard for the first time outside the USA no fewer than 54 years after its composition. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this considerable feat of procrastination; Morton Feldman‘s The Swallows of Salangan lasts a mere nine minutes, & even though the instrumentation is unusual—a chorus, plus 5 flutes (4 regular, 1 alto), 5 trumpets, 2 tubas, 2 pianos, 2 vibraphones & 7 cellos—it’s not something that would tax any established ensemble or orchestra. There must be another reason for such lackadaisicality, & one can’t help wondering whether it has more than a little to do with the nature of the music itself; i described it ‘beguiling & enigmatic’, but there’s equally a kind of aloof impenetrability that one can imagine many listeners might find not merely unappealing but downright off-putting. Yet if knees can be convinced to bend rather than jerk, there are—as always with Feldman—strange & unfamiliar rewards aplenty to be found. Read more
A couple of days ago marked the eighth anniversary of the death of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. To mark the event, & also begin a new occasional series on 5:4, i’d like to take a brief look back at one of the more enigmatic works of Ligeti’s career. Poème symphonique was composed in 1962, & is as much a piece of performance art as a musical composition. The performance specification is relatively straightforward: 100 mechanical metronomes are required, operated by 10 players, each metronome fully wound & set to its own tempo; all 100 are then released & allowed to tick freely until their mechanisms wind down. & that’s it, except your problems begin immediately, procuring & assembling 100 metronomes at one time & place being the most obvious. Not entirely surprisingly, the first performance triggered a fair amount of controversy, being as it was part of an official reception at the closing event of the 1963 Gaudeamus Courses and Concerts of New Music, in Hilversum, the Netherlands, an event involving local dignitaries & which was to be televised the following day. During the performance, protests broke out, & the broadcast never took place. Read more
In the last few years i’ve written about a number of pieces that languished ignored & unplayed for decades, & earlier this year another such work received its first UK performance, which was also—as far as anyone can tell—only the second time it had been heard. That fact is somewhat surprising considering that the work in question was Mégalithes, by the renowned French composer Gérard Grisey, whose work has long enjoyed an enthusiastic following throughout Europe, in part due to his innovative approach to sound, which became known as spectral music. Mégalithes predates those developments, however, composed in 1969 when Grisey was just 23 years old. The combination of that striking title & its scoring for 15 brass instruments (4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 6 horns & tuba, distributed around the performance space) suggests not so much a composition as a granite-hewn edifice. Yet Grisey’s motivation was neither hard nor impersonal; described as an “oeuvre composée à la mémoire des victimes du Biafra”, Mégalithes commemorates the million-plus innocent victims massacred in the Nigerian Civil War, which took place through the last three years of the 1960s.
Having recently examined the more interesting soloistic & orchestral new releases, it’s time to give an overview of the best of the rest, music that doesn’t fit quite so easily into nice categories. First, released today on the Innova label, is Sunken Cathedral, the new album from Korean-American composer & singer Bora Yoon. Described as “a sonic journey through the chambers of subconscious”, the collection of songs that comprise Sunken Cathedral are a testament to Yoon’s fascination with sound design, married to a vocal approach that evokes a kind of ecstatic mysticism (or should that be mystical ecstasy?). It’s a quality writ large at the outset, refitting Hildegard of Bingen into a soft ambient driftscape, but throughout the album it reveals itself in increasingly subtle & unexpected ways. Yoon’s ear is clearly very fine-tuned; a dreamy setting of the Latin In Paradisum text is encased in the sounds of a scrawling pen, dogs barking, gentle bow tappings on a viola, jangling chimes, the rustling of Bible pages, a pair of Buddha machines & — my favourite — “subwoofing spoons”. It’s heady, even intoxicating stuff, with absolutely no sense of novelty to any of it; each sound, literally, rings true.
It’s back! This afternoon (at precisely 2pm, following a brief period of something not entirely unlike hype) the Proms 2014 season was revealed. Having pored over the details, what it promises in the way of new music is characterised as much by safety as it is by generosity. Discounting the concessions to jazz & pop as well as the sextet of ‘London premières’—not premières in any meaningful sense of the word—there are 22 works hitherto unheard on these shores, nine of which are first performances. But overall, it has to be said some of the choices demonstrate strikingly narrow-minded thinking, including many composers whose work has been featured at the Proms numerous times already. Furthermore, the durations afforded to new music are noticeably shorter than in recent seasons; no contemporary piece this year will ask more than half an hour of your time. Read more
Today is the final day of Lent, so it’s time to draw my series focussing on music by women composers to a close. As it’s Easter Eve, the time associated with the great late-night vigil, i can’t think of a more appropriate piece with which to end the Lent Series than Crepuscular Hour by the Norwegian composer Maja S K Ratkje. Originally completed in 2010, the work—which, as the name suggests, lasts a full hour—is intended to be performed in a large, resonant space, such as a cathedral, with the musicians surrounding the audience. These musicians, comprising three choirs, three pairs of noise musicians & a church organ, fill the environment with sound that works both to evoke the effect of crepuscular rays (strong shafts of sunlight emerging from cloud, typically seen at dawn & dusk) & also to transport the audience on a form of meditative journey. The structure of a composition, after all, is not that dissimilar from that of a liturgy, & Crepuscular Hour is in essence an abstract liturgical act, one that doesn’t so much impel meaning on the faithful as provide stimuli & a framework for our own individualised meditations.
i was surprised to realise recently that, apart from a CD review last year, the penultimate composer in my Lent Series, Liza Lim, has not yet been featured on 5:4. That’s a pretty serious omission, one that i hope will be mitigated by celebrating her 2009 work for solo cello, Invisibility. Too many discussions about new music get distracted by the shedloads of technical tomfoolery encasing the music (frequently as a substitute for content, activity masquerading as achievement). In the case of Invisibility, however, one can only begin by examining a technical aspect of the work—but an aspect that informs the work at every level, from the exotic surface right down to its firmament. Read more