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i’m now heading off to Sweden for a week-and-a-bit; once i’m back, belated coverage of the Proms premières will begin.

Ses snart!

Christopher Fox – Topophony (World Première)

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Back to Tectonics, and to one of the most beautiful new orchestral scores i’ve encountered in recent times. Christopher Fox‘s Topophony, for orchestra and up to three optional soloists (but not a concerto), operates in such a way that the conductor ensures that every beat is a different length. Beats are not of over-arching sonic importance, though, as the music speaks through slow, meditative swatches of instrumental colour, comprising textures of protracted, shifting pitches with a variety of surface articulations. These are often fascinating, conjuring up motors, the noise of something caught in bicycle spokes, the bell of an alarm clock: unpitched occasional worryings that become a delicate counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra which, apart from some moments when deep throbs threaten to overwhelm, comes across by contrast as rather distant (in both senses of the word). Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Charlotte Bray – Entanglement, Kokoro & Canticum Chamber Choir

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Moving on from exotica, for the last couple of days new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival has been revisiting aspects of the past in order to reflect on the present. Yesterday night, back at Parabola Arts Centre, this was manifested in a pair of chamber operas, performed by Nova Music Opera. i’ll resist the temptation to write about the latter of the two, Thomas Hyde’s That Man Stephen Ward, which ranks as one of the most nauseatingly effluvial dramatic works i’ve ever encountered, and focus instead on the very different experience that was Charlotte Bray‘s Entanglement, receiving its world première. It seems to be the case with contemporary opera that it takes a while to grasp the essential language with which it’s speaking, and while i thought that was the case through the first couple of scenes of Entanglement, it became apparent that it had launched straight into its expressive heart at the outset. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Emulsion Sinfonietta, From Java to the Himalaya

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As far as new music was concerned, last Saturday at the Cheltenham Music Festival was characterised chiefly by exotica and sensuality. To a lesser extent the latter was to be found in the late evening gig at Parabola Arts Centre given by Emulsion Sinfonietta, although only three (out of seven) pieces were prepared to eschew being episodically amorphous and/or locked in primitive, rather hackneyed loop chatter. Emulsion founder Trish ClowesApple Boy appeared at first to be quite simple, but turned out to be extravagantly rich—opulent even—attaining some very impressive tutti textures that were highly individualistic, only held in check by the music’s underlying harmony. The quality of its lyricism was only exceeded by its ravishing beauty. In a change to the programme, a work by Iain Ballamy (that may have been called Chantreys) tapped into similarly lush harmonies in a piece that unfolded like a slow chorale, stately and sumptuous. But highlight of the evening was Luke Styles‘ highly atmospheric Chasing the Nose, doleful despite a persistent funked-up tribal groove; focussed on a wonderfully lyrical bass clarinet line, it expanded into a feisty duet with saxophone at its conclusion; exhilarating and immersive stuff. Read more

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Mix Tape #34 : Summer

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As the UK seems to be going through a never-ending heatwave at the moment, it seems entirely appropriate to devote the new 5:4 Mix Tape to music connected (at least in name) with the summer. Interestingly, this was a little harder to put together than the autumn mix from nine months ago, but the result is nonetheless a nicely eclectic collection of tracks festooned with references to summer, sunshine and heat. It embraces electronica new and old (Andrew Liles, Vangelis Katsoulis, Autechre, Pram, Plaid, Boy Is Fiction), some fittingly laid-back noodlings (The Flashbulb, The David Whittaker Orchestra, The Real Tuesday Weld, Yellowjackets), classical strains from Maurice Jarre‘s sweltering score for Lawrence of Arabia and Max Richter‘s inventive rethinking of Vivaldi, a brace of intense songs (Pantaleimon – practically swooning here, and Anna von Hausswolff) and electronics with or without field recordings (aTelecine, Jonathan Coleclough, Michel Redolfi). Pervading the mix tape are several bursts of ambient music, for me one of the best kinds of music for really hot days, represented here by Chubby Wolf, Shane Carruth (blink and you’ll miss him), Celer (from one of their most beautiful tracks ever), Stendeck, Evan Caminiti and, to finish, 36.

90 minutes of heat-stricken blaze and bliss; here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Peter Ablinger – QUARTZ for high orchestra (World Première)

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A composer whose work has for many years left me both amused and bemused is Peter Ablinger, whose latest large-scale work QUARTZ was also premièred at last month’s Tectonics festival. The piece is in keeping with Ablinger’s ongoing concern with the way relatively rudimentary—not to say mundane—sounds are perceived when heard in conditions that afford a new kind of scrutiny. Here, the relentless ticking of a small quartz clock becomes the basis for a four-part orchestral study; subtitled “for high orchestra”, this indicates at the outset that almost everything heard is in the uppermost registers of the instruments. Ablinger made a recording of the clock, which was then subjected to a frequency analysis to tease out its pitches; this recording is heard at the close of each movement, acting as something between a cadence and a reference point, returning the piece to a kind of ‘default’ position.

Not surprisingly, the four movements, each located within a narrow band up in the pitch domain’s stratosphere, bear strong resemblances to each other, but the act of listening to such similar materials causes even small differences to feel immense. Read more

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Cassandra Miller – Duet for cello and orchestra (World Première)

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Having finally found some time to listen to recent premières, i’ve been struck by several of the large-scale new works heard at last month’s Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. More than a few of them seemed at odds with what i was expecting to hear, and in the case of Cassandra Miller‘s remarkable Duet for cello and orchestra, the piece seemed to be actively pushing one away, only then to perform a complete volte face without, seemingly, doing anything at all.

It establishes a pattern very quickly: the solo cello presents a slow and rather stately procession of alternating pitches, G… D… G… D… G… and so on; the orchestra, with the brass at the forefront, is concerned with completely contrasting fanfare-like material, boisterous and ebullient. This continues, repeats, becomes familiar, becomes routine, and the back-and-forth pushes with increasing force against one’s desire for change. Yet, listen closely and things are not the same: the brass outbursts find both their sharpness tempered and their oblique harmonic connection to the cello bridged by the strings, these fanfares frequently ending with extended chords that are broadly consonant with the cello. And as for the soloist, its 2-note progression has subtly evolved into a pair of descending fifths, G… C…, D… G…. The orchestral sections feel yanked in two directions with regard to the cello, pulling away and pushing towards simultaneously, becoming in the process both more fraught and more relaxed, resulting in a wonderfully bizarre mélange rather like a movie soundtrack being mashed up. Read more

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