New releases: Mark Andre, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Phil Minton & Simon H. Fell, Kreng

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If there’s one thing that many of the more interesting new releases i’ve heard have in common, it’s doing new and unusual things with conventional sounds, objects and forms. To this end, the most impressive disc of orchestral music I’ve encountered recently is Mark Andre‘s … auf … (Wergo). There’s actually something rather brazen about the piece, Andre rooting it in what is essentially a language of gesture. There aren’t many of them either: huge tutti accents, loud crescendo chords, gentle sustained pitches and extremely soft percussive textures comprise pretty much everything that we hear. Andre makes them the poles of an intense drama played out (in three pieces, both independent and parts of a trilogy) for over an hour, yet which never for a moment seems to tread water. Which isn’t to suggest that it’s relentless; on the contrary, a great deal of the tension arises from protracted periods of semi-stasis; for some composers these would be times of repose, but in … auf … the orchestra feels poised; energy and activity are implicit everywhere. Furthermore, the accents—which, due both to the actual dynamic but also to their contextual contrast, are on occasions exceptionally loud (the hammer blows of Mahler 6 meet the opening of Mahler 1)—do nothing whatsoever to dispel or release this pent-up energy, if anything injecting still more, acts of blunt force provocation like a boxer hitting their own face before a fight. Andre moves back and forth between these gestural poles in a way that sounds inherently chaotic yet—Takemitsu-like—each step forward is entirely convincing.
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Brett Dean – The Siduri Dances (World Première)

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From the recorder to the flute, and a typically dramatic concerto for the instrument by Australian composer Brett Dean. Composed in 2007, The Siduri Dances, for flute and string orchestra, began life three years earlier in Dean’s work for solo flute Demons. The inspirational scope here is broader, drawing on the mythological goddess Siduri who lives by the sea and, in the eponymous epic, gives advice to Gilgamesh, attempting to make him rethink the necessity of his quest for immortality and focus instead on the here and now:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find that life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.

Dean’s intention seems to be to tap into the spirit of Siduri’s admonition. Read more

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Dai Fujikura – Recorder Concerto

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A general shift in register now, from low to high, and to a pair of concertos using a reduced orchestra comprising just strings. Dai Fujikura seems to have written his Recorder Concerto despite himself, describing his initial view of the instrument as a pretty negative one. What makes the piece so interesting, i think, is the way Fujikura seems to have overcome that rather awkward starting position. It’s a little hard to articulate, but one’s attention is drawn not so much to the material he has composed for the instrument but to the instrument itself and the way it is behaving. In other words, it feels more a concerto about the recorder than what the recorder is playing. Sort of.

In terms of what actually happens, the setup is pretty simple, with the soloist taking the lead, their articulations serving as a model for the strings. Fujikura makes that very clear at the outset, low flutterings on the recorder translating into tremolandi in the strings; the recorder progresses to a melody made up of fragmented moments, and the strings’ material is equally fractured. Fujikura allows this kind of thing to play out at various points throughout the piece for minutes at a time, enabling two things to happen. Read more

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Iancu Dumitrescu – Élan and Permanence (World Première)

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From the cello to the electric guitar, and a curiously strange concerto by Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu (husband of Ana-Maria Avram, featured on 5:4 last year). Particularly well-known (and self-described) as a composer with ‘spectralist’ leanings—but not, according to Dumitrescu, in the same way as the French spectralists—his guitar concerto Élan and Permanence seems almost to go out of its way to reduce or at least radically rethink the role of the soloist. Even describing the guitar as a soloist is stretching a point.

Uncertainty reigns throughout the piece, both in terms of the way material is articulated as well as the material itself. Utmost abstract, much of the music takes place as if from a distance which, considering how much energy is regularly displayed, makes for a decidedly weird listening experience. The energy bubbles up to the surface of seething textural masses, punching outwards in the form of brass reports, coagulating into clouds of string tremolandi and unleashing wild percussive outbursts that have a distinctly Varèsian sense of autonomy. This orchestral behaviour, which subsides into glades of middlegrounded repose as much as it lets rip, is curious enough, but the way the guitar interacts with it—if ‘interacts’ is the right word (i don’t think it is)—is downright odd. Read more

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Davíð Brynjar Franzson – on Matter and Materiality (World Première)

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Without wishing to appear too biased towards the cello, the next concerto in my Lent series is another work that features that instrument at its epicentre. A few months back, i was enthusing about Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s radical treatment of the piano; in his new work on Matter and Materiality, he puts the cello into an equally radical but altogether more gruelling context.

If the soloist can be described as not doing much, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It sounds as though Franzson has detuned the C-string down to a bottom D (a similar effect to that in Rebecca Saunders’ Solitude), and this note becomes the unwitting nadir of the cello’s repeated failed attempts to haul itself up or out or along. These attempts are expressed in a dogged series of grinding swells (orchestral colours can be barely glimpsed within them); ostensibly tinged with aggression, the instability of the cello’s timbre coats its pitch with spasmodic harmonics and overtones, exposing it as utmost fragile, all throbs and palpitations, music in dire need of defibrillation. Heavy bow pressure, far from obtaining some kind of solidity (or, considering the title, ‘materiality’), only undermines this fundamental further, causing it to waver and distort. Read more

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Electric Spring 2015

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i don’t know which felt more strange, being in Huddersfield for a music festival in February (rather than November), or the fact that, somehow, for two decades the university’s Electric Spring festival has entirely passed me by. Better late than never, i suppose, especially as this year’s festival, which took place over five days last week, was celebrating a double anniversary, both the 20 years that Electric Spring has existed as well as the 10 years during which it has been run by composers Monty Adkins and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (an era which has now ended; in future the festival will be curated by a newly-formed committee).

In addition to various daytime activities—including workshops on sound projection (using Huddersfield’s 48-speaker HISS diffusion system) and live coding (supplemented by a late evening ‘algorave’), as well as an MSP symposium and the ‘Yorkshire wiggle’ modular synthfest—Electric Spring centred on five evening concerts, featuring a headline act and opening with a short work by a different composer. The latter varied considerably in terms of both imagination and execution. Ben PottsCuboid was wilfully obtuse, bookended by bouts of tickling a kind of suspended multiple wobble-board, in between which non-sequitur bursts of shifting bandwidth came and went; it was at least mercifully short. Roberto Gerhard‘s DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile No. 2), composed in 1963, formed the soundtrack to a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabal. This felt problematic in a similar way to some of the film accompaniments by Bernard Parmegiani, insofar as the visuals in no way lived up to the more experimental qualities of the music. Where the film was characterised by symmetry and anecdotal references, full of cycling images with large amounts of repetition, Gerhard’s music, encompassing an extremely wide dynamic range, seemed to follow its own predominately amorphous nose (revealingly, he described it an “aleatoric soundtrack”). The audiovisual combination caused a sharp aesthetic jarring that could only be solved by shutting one’s eyes. β Pictoris b by Olivier Pasquet referred to specifics in its programme note—”an extrasolar planet located approximately 63 light-years away”—but his music could hardly have been more generalised, a study in texture formed from the movement and juxtaposition of a body of timbrally similar particles. This was interesting in and of itself, but how Pasquet’s somewhat psychobabbular description matched his material was mystifying. The highlight of these openers for me was guitarist Diego Castro Magas’ rendition of Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, completed as far back as 2007 but only now receiving its world première. i’m not sure which aspect was more jaw-dropping, Magas’ performance—involving incredibly fast hand and finger agility, racing up and around the fingerboard, to and from the tremolo bar, while operating two foot-pedals—or the resultant music which, apart from a section toward the end, sounded about as far from guitar music as one could imagine. There was, admittedly, a surfeit of information to grapple with on this first listen, Magas positively ploughing through Cassidy’s layers of simultaneous action (one of the most frantic passages can be seen in the excerpt above), but its soundworld could not have been more urgent and inviting. i can’t wait to hear it again. And again. Read more

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Patrick Nunn – Fata Morgana

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The next concerto in my Lent series is another involving solo cello, Fata Morgana by British composer Patrick Nunn. Composed in 2007, this short work—for cello, chamber ensemble and live electronics—takes its title primarily from the character of Morgan le Fay (known among many other names as Fata Morgana), who in Arthurian legend was a shape-shifting enchantress. The term is also used for a particular type of mirage effect, where objects at sea, visible just above the horizon, become significantly transformed due to the effects of light bending through thermal layers of air. The cello’s character throughout is or aspires to be melodic, and its role is emphatically in the foreground as an instigator of ideas. It emerges, at altitude, out of a strange and complex opening chord, whereupon its material is immediately resonated and expanded by the electronics. Despite calling it an instigator, there’s a somewhat pensive quality to the cello’s behaviour, placing notes and melodic gestures cautiously; this contrasts with the tendency of both the ensemble and the electronics, which feel highly sensitive to the cello’s slightest sounds, extending them while growing in intensity and pace all the time. Read more

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