Dark Music Days 2019: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Yrkja

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Judging from the way it’s usually discussed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that – overwhelmingly inspired by the country’s uniquely dramatic combination of earth, water, ice and fire – Icelandic music was all about, and only about, nature. It’s therefore interesting, in hindsight, to note that it wasn’t until the sixth day of the Dark Music Days that the subject of nature even crossed my mind. However, when it finally did, last Thursday evening at the concert given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daníel Bjarnason, it didn’t merely cross my mind but practically filled it to capacity. Hitherto, my impression of Icelandic contemporary music, irrespective of my opinion about individual pieces, was one of variety, music characterised by diversity and difference. Whereas now, sitting in Harpa’s large Eldborg Hall, hearing five substantial Icelandic orchestral works, i was staggered by their similarities. Textures, textures everywhere.

The archetype for this use of texture was demonstrated with considerable subtlety in Lendh by Canada-born, Iceland-based composer and cellist Veronique Vaka, the first of three world premières in the concert. Her programme note was all about nature, concerned with the sensory impressions of landscape, inspired particularly by the geothermal area at Krýsuvík (in south-west Iceland). In general – the primary aspect of this archetype – perception of the overall mass effect was of much greater importance than individual actions. Thus the orchestra articulated a network of shifting textures punctuated regularly by swells, as if something were churning and bubbling in the music’s depths. This led to the sensation that the orchestra was an organism slowly breathing, ripples running across its surface with such variety of colour and shape and detail it brought to mind (to switch metaphors) the changes in pigmentation on the skin of a chameleon. Music that focuses exclusively on large-scale textural impressions like this can often become drab and unfocused, yet Vaka instilled in Lendh a real sense of pent-up power and potential: its ‘climaxes’ were barely larger than the swells that had preceded them but packed almost the same weight as a full-on tutti due to the palpable implication of what they could unleash if they really wanted to. A striking and lovely piece.

The same couldn’t be said for María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, also a world première, the ideas of which could have been lifted straight out of a movie. The title of the work – which the composer claims “came early in the process” but just before the festival was still being listed as ‘new work’, so perhaps was more of an afterthought – seemed arbitrary, entirely unrelated to what was essentially a tired exercise in basic, reheated filmic tropes. This was texture at its most ineffectual and clichéd, and while Oceans had its moments – including one where in the midst of a climax the harmony became complicated and briefly clustered – it otherwise lacked any significant memorable ideas. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Zoë Martlew

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One of the plagues that continues to afflict most contemporary music festivals is ‘première-itis’, an acute obsession with presenting loudly-trumpeted world premières at the expense of providing opportunities for second, third or indeed nth performances. It was a relief, therefore, that this year’s Dark Music Days (which was otherwise similarly infected) included a number of concerts ​with virtually no premières at all, the first of which was a recital given last Thursday by UK cellist Zoë Martlew.

The concert took place in the imposing cuboid space of Kaldalón Hall, part of Reykjavík’s flagship concert hall complex Harpa, with a programme focusing on Danish and Norwegian music. However, it was a piece by English (Denmark-based) composer Juliana Hodkinson that turned out to be the most flamboyantly memorable, though not primarily for musical reasons. Titled Scrape, it lives up to its name by stipulating that the cellist should scrape heavily not just their instrument but also against a piece of metal, which Martlew had realised with a cheese grater tied to her right foot. The first attempt to perform the piece ended after just a few seconds when Martlew’s bow was spectacularly shredded, its horsehair loosely flapping around; it was hard to tell whether this was a direct consequence of its grinding against the strings or just a coincidence. The second attempt, Martlew having dashed off-stage for a replacement, was more successful inasmuch as the bow held together, although the cheese grater was now doing its best to rebel against Martlew’s actions, turning at 90° to her foot, thereby making it difficult to control. Whether all of this effort was worth it is a good question. Scrape could (charitably) be described as a celebration of the essence of music-making, of the friction essential to the production of all sound, though the way its relentlessly screeching soundworld soon lost much of its impact and power plus the lack of a cogent shape or structure made the piece an exceedingly dull experience. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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On Wednesday, the Dark Music Days moved out of Reykjavík to the arts centre of Hafnarborg in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður, where the Icelandic Guitar Trio – Þórarinn Sigurbergsson, Þröstur Þorbjörnsson and Svanur Vilbergsson – gave a recital featuring three native works alongside music from the UK and USA.

The Icelandic pieces shared a general tendency towards the conservative and traditional. This was most demonstrably the case in Fimm Skissur [Five Sketches] by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, composed in 2016 but only now receiving its first performance. Everything about it felt rooted in convention, from the fast-slow alternations of its movements to the language of its lyricism, which veered between cheerful Classical simplicity and a more intricate Baroque tendency. The piece was most interesting in the two slow movements where the music sounded least like an exercise in pastiche. The Andante won me over due to the fastidiousness of its counterpoint, which proved hypnotic, while the Lento exhibited a soft delicacy that was particularly lovely at its dying away conclusion. The rest was simply too generic and impersonal to make any kind of meaningful connection. Ari Hálfdán Aðalgeirsson‘s Gaia, another première, was also characterised by fastidiously-composed material, as if each and every note had been positioned and aligned with the greatest care – though never sounding remotely finicky or theoretical. The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping one’s expectations. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: The Riot Ensemble

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It could hardly be more perfect that the 2019 Dark Music Days – Iceland’s premier contemporary music festival – should have begun last Saturday in complete darkness. This was in Reykjavík’s Nordic House, where the most valiant effort had been made to block out every trace of light for The Riot Ensemble’s world première performance of Georg Friedrich Haas‘ 70-minute Solstices.

Darkness has been a recurring feature of Haas’ work in recent years, from the sporadic lights-out episodes of in vain to the complete blackout of String Quartet No. 10. Every time it occurs in a composition, one is forced to deal with, or at last come to terms with, the darkness, and this was a significant preoccupation during the first few minutes of Solstices. I found myself considering the fact that I often listen with my eyes closed during concerts, and the extent to which this differed from the darkness being imposed on me. But of course there is a huge difference, not just physical but psychological, between simply closing our eyes (thereby shutting down that sense) and having our eyes open but receiving nothing back.

The second thing I found I had to deal with was the technical achievement happening before me: ten musicians, performing in total darkness and therefore, by necessity, entirely from memory. That’s somewhat mind-blowing of itself. It made me think of other artistic technical achievements – such as the long take camera work of Hitchcock or Alejandro Iñárritu – that also have the capacity, if we (and the artists) aren’t careful, to distract from and take us out of the art being created, due to the surprise and incredulity that they cause. Read more

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Free internet music: Wixel

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Wim Maesschalk, better known as Wixel, is a Belgian musician who originally set up the label Slaapwel Records, the aim of which, as that name implies, is to provide “music to fall asleep to”. In a way that tells you all you need to know about Wixel, though his music is capable of a whole lot more than just sending one to sleep. His output isn’t large, and for the most part consists of his ‘2009 Project’, a series of 12 mini-albums he released a decade ago, each one on the last day of the month. Though these releases weren’t put out by Slaapwel their connection to sleep is extremely strong, and indeed one of the things i find most fascinating about them is that they don’t merely sound designed to accompany that unique kind of somnolent whooziness, but in many cases sound as if they were actually created in that very state. What this means is that the music has a tendency to veer quite sharply between grabbing one’s attention and seeming completely disinterested in doing anything more than just lethargic rambling. Such a division as that sounds pretty close to Brian Eno’s ‘interesting/ignorable’ dichotomy, and indeed Maesschalk wrote the following in his introduction to the fourth album in the series, Slaapliedjes [Lullabies], with regard to the practice (and difficulties) of utilising processes to aid creativity:

Trying to make good music every day of the week can be quite frustrating. Especially because you know it is impossible to make 12 records full with excellent melodies and sounds. … Suddenly I had the idea to forget about melodies, about rhythm, about shaping sounds. The only thing that would determine these songs is the density of notes and the choice of the instruments. … The consequence is that all [the] songs are very different, yet they sound very alike. … They all look very very similar, but they’re all quite unique. … All [the] songs are also part of my idea about “slaapwel records” music. They shouldn’t carry too many stories, but should reside on the thin line between pretty and boring.

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Free internet music: Zbigniew Karkowski

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One of my absolute favourites at the most extreme end of pretty much all musical continua is Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski. Karkowski died just over five years ago, and digesting his legacy is something i’ve been attempting to do since his passing. While there are plenty of available recordings of his work, concert performances in the UK are exceedingly rare. Graham McKenzie prominently featured his work at HCMF in 2015 and 2017, and both occasions served as a marvellous demonstration of the unique combination of intricate subtlety and enormous overload that typify Karkowski’s music. Performances of Karkowski easily rank among the most beautiful and overwhelming musical experiences i’ve ever had, and one can only hope that similarly open-minded concert curators might programme his work more often in future.

Live in Lyon is an unedited 23-minute recording of one of Karkowski’s performances. The fact that it’s unedited is significant, as it highlights from time to time the way in which Karkowski wrangled with both the technology and the sound materials themselves, and the occasional dropouts and glitches that occur in no way sound like ‘mistakes’ but only add to the overall effect of the performance. Discussing Karkowski’s music to an extent necessitates looking broadly rather than at minutiae. It tends to unfold slowly, generally favouring evolution and transformation rather than abrupt cuts and shifts, and an important factor in engaging with it is the way one gradually becomes familiar with its discrete sound elements, a familiarity that Karkowski often makes crushingly intimate. Read more

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Free internet music: The Missing Ensemble

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The Missing Ensemble was a US trio comprising Daniel De Los Santos, John Sellekaers and Mathias Delplanque, who together released two albums around 13 years ago. i forget where the recommendation to listen to their music came from all those years ago, but i do remember that one of the things that instantly drew me towards it was the cover art of their first album, Hidden Doors (2006), which featured a painting by an artist i had long admired, Ray Caesar.

Caesar’s art is beautiful and unsettling, and that’s not a bad description for Hidden Doors, a four-part journey through a soundscape that’s simultaneously stable – even, at times, borderline stagnant – yet with an omnipresent sense of threat. The first part sets up two layers of sound, one of which is positioned in the middleground, and consists of quiet, slightly glitchy burbling. The second layer involves various pitches being emphatically extruded in the foreground, sometimes piercing or juddering, other times acting in a more circumspect manner, lurking nearby. The relative strength of these two layers continually varies and wavers though extremely slowly, gently altering the depth and focus of the music. In the second and third parts there’s more of a sense of diverse elements being brought together. In the relatively brief Part II, there’s a sense of metamorphosis, of these elements combining to form something new. In less than three minutes it becomes a beautiful but strange, multi-faceted texture in which pitch and noise collide and jostle, as if it were reforming and breaking apart constantly. Read more

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Free internet music: Access to Arasaka

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Apologies for the silence on 5:4 for the last couple of weeks, but i’ve been completely wiped out by ‘flu during this time, and have only started to feel relatively human again in the last day or so. Very belated then, i’m going to spend the remainder of January in the same way as i did in 2018, starting the new year by showing deference to the financial repercussions of the festive season, and teasing out some of the more interesting music that’s available online for no money whatsoever.

i’m going to begin with US musician Rob Lioy, who releases his music under a name derived from one of the megacorporations in role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020Access To Arasaka. It’s possible to speak quite broadly about the Access to Arasaka back catalogue due to the fact that Lioy’s musical approach has remained pretty consistent. It’s primary characteristic is a dichotomy between motion and stillness, the former articulated via energetic, often heavily-glitched beats placed emphatically in the foreground, the latter as layers of pitch and harmony that drift in the middle- and background as well as, crucially, bass drones that despite often being implied more than heard, nonetheless tend to feel omnipresent. It’s an archetypal ambient/electronica amalgam, but there are numerous ways that Lioy’s work stands apart from the large amount of music that explores this kind of conjunction.

It’s partly down to the music’s sheen: every Access to Arasaka track has the same kind of futuristic noir atmosphere that permeates Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. As such, the music displays an array of opposites. Its ultra-modernity is matched by a gritty, even dirty demeanour; the beats in particular are often encrusted with digital grime and squelch such that they sound not so much new as a resurrected manifestation of something potentially much older. The liveliness of these beat patterns – which, when present, are almost always front and centre – is countered by the way Lioy grounds each track over a drone, resulting in music that inhabits a sharply defined and perhaps delimited environment, within which it remains somewhat tethered in place. One of the most beguiling opposites that characterises Access to Arasaka is the fanciful sense that, far from being actively composed, these might almost be compositions created by the computers themselves, as if banks of ancient data had begun burbling into life and sought to arrange their contents according to some kind of artificial intelligence. This arises in part from the austerity of Lioy’s aesthetic, which treats its elements of beats and bass with such aloof, monochrome intensity that it becomes almost fetishistic. Another way of putting it might be to say that Access to Arasaka is cold and unemotional, yet of course the way one responds to such music may well be the complete opposite. Read more

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Mixtape #53 : Best Albums of 2018

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Happy New Year everyone!

Many thanks to all of you who have read, followed, commented, shared, promoted and otherwise supported the blog during the previous year, most especially to my beloved band of Patrons. i’m starting 2019 in the usual way, with a new mixtape featuring something from each of the brilliant albums in my Best of 2018 list. Being such an eclectic list, the ‘narrative’ of this mixtape is one that unavoidably veers between quite wildly dissimilar styles and aesthetics, but to my ear that only makes it all the more interesting and fun.

40 tracks (well, technically 41: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s were short so i included two) that testify to and celebrate the range and scale of musical wonders created during 2018 – the full tracklisting is shown below, and links to buy each album can be found in the previous two days’ articles. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed. Read more

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Best Albums of 2018 (Part 2)

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i said yesterday how 2018 had been a very good year – just how good is encapsulated in these, the best of the best of the year’s albums, each one of which will do sublimely wonderful things to your ears. Read more

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Best Albums of 2018 (Part 1)

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Right, let’s cut to the chase: forget all those other narrow, limited, parochial and partisan Best Albums lists, here’s the only list you need: my round-up of the 40 albums that have charmed, enthralled, awed and amazed me the most during 2018. In case anyone was in any doubt, it’s been a very good year.

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The Dialogues: Lee Fraser

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i’m really happy to be able to present the next instalment in my series The Dialogues. This time i’m in conversation with UK composer Lee Fraser, whose music has been consistently blowing my mind for the last few years. The first album of his music, Dark Camber, was my best album of 2014, and his latest, Cor Unvers, released earlier this year, is just as impressive. Despite this, Fraser currently remains a relatively unknown figure, and my hope is that our Dialogue will go some way to shed more light on his music – which, both in terms of how it’s created and what it does, is seriously unlike the majority of electronic music regularly heard in most concert halls – and increase appreciation and understanding of his work. At time of writing, Fraser’s output is relatively small (a mere 10 compositions), but the imagination and power of these pieces reinforce my long-standing belief that it’s the composers who compose comparatively little – as opposed to churning out vast quantities on an endless production line – who invariably create by far the most compelling and potent music.

We got together at his home at the start of October, and i want to thank both Lee and his partner Caterina for their hospitality, and for allowing so much time for our discussion. i’m especially grateful to Lee for being prepared to talk at such length about his work; i hitherto knew almost nothing about his approach to composition, and it was fascinating to learn so much more about his musical outlook and methods. And if this Dialogue whets your appetite, his activities can be followed on his website, and to obtain one of the few remaining copies of each of his albums, Dark Camber is available via Bandcamp while Cor Unvers can be had from Discogs (best if you’re within the UK/Europe) and Ge-stell or Careful Catalog (outside Europe).

As usual, i’ve inserted numerous excerpts throughout our conversation to elucidate some of the points being discussed; a full list of these can be found below, together with the time in the audio when they occur. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the link below or streamed via Mixcloud. Read more

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Mixtape #52 : Christmas

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For the last of my 2018 monthly mixtapes, which i’ve been doing throughout 5:4‘s 10th anniversary year, i’ve gone seasonal and turned to the theme of Christmas. However, while that theme permeates all the choices i’ve made, the result is quite far from the kind of conventional upbeat playlist we’re using to hearing this time of year. i haven’t in any way set out be deliberately contrary, still less put something together that’s sarcastic or ‘alt Christmas’, but i’m conscious that this is a distinctly subdued and contemplative mixtape (something i’ve reflected in the cover artwork). Like compositions, mixtapes are very personal things, and i guess this collection of music is just what i particularly wanted to be spending time with at the moment.

No need for a breakdown of what’s included this time, i think the music pretty much speaks for itself. 60 minutes of mysterious, melancholic and magical music to provide perhaps a darker, deeper hue for the festive season. Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded using the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Moritz Eggert – Musica Viva Vol. 30

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It’s often not easy to put into words how or why a piece works, and in the case of Moritz Eggert, i’m literally starting this article not at all sure what on earth i’m going to say. The latest Musica Viva disc on the NEOS label – Vol. 30, which testifies to NEOS’ incredible ongoing commitment to avant-garde music – is dedicated to two of Eggert’s works, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Masse, the seventh in his ‘Number Nine’ series, and Muzak, a piece for voice and orchestra dedicated to the late David Bowie. Having written recently about one contemporary response to muzak, it’s interesting to encounter another one, although straight away there are some issues with that title and its implied accompanying conceit.

It’s not actually about muzak. Not even remotely. As a musical entity, muzak isn’t bound within the limits of one particular genre. Instead, its primary characteristic is to be an especially light, anodyne and inconspicuous version of whatever stylistic manner is desired, usually some form of pop, rock or jazz. The distinction between the original musical form – the ‘parent’ – and the muzak rendition of it – the ‘child’ or, better still, the ‘bastard’ – is an essential one: the former seeks active attention, the latter requires passive (even subliminal) acknowledgement. The main problem with Eggert’s Muzak is that this distinction is essentially lost. The piece, conducted here by David Robertson, is constructed as a collage of generic tropes that process past as if on a conveyor belt, snippets and fragments that allude to various kinds of what Eggert summarises as “commercial music”. Perhaps inevitably, jump-cut juxtapositions between sharply dissimilar idioms is amusing, and this is evidently no accident. The reality that the piece has a deliberately comic sensibility is reinforced in part by the often hilarious delivery with which Eggert himself performs the role of the solo voice, singing, crooning and otherwise articulating a stream of allusions to the “clichés or platitudes of pop music” (the composer’s words). One especially funny section takes an extended pot-shot at the arch-nemesis of good taste André Rieu, references to his name causing Eggert’s voice to become quietly apoplectic, letting out a collection of barely-repressed f-bombs. Read more

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Kenneth Hesketh – In Ictu Oculi

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One of the things i’ve noted previously when writing about the larger-scale music of Kenneth Hesketh – which in general i’ve admired very much – is its tendency toward what i’ve called “laser-sighted focus”. This peculiar kind of über-clarity is exhibited in many of Hesketh’s works from the noughties, and from my perspective has proved problematic, not only becoming rather tiring, but actively working against what seemed to me to be the composer’s more fundamental (and engaging) instincts for more unconventional, nebulous forms of drama and narrative. So it’s interesting to be able to compare then and now with a new disc of more recent orchestral works released last month on Paladino Music. The three featured works, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller, were all composed during the last few years, and right at the outset it’s abundantly clear that much has changed, about which more in a moment.

If there’s a weakness shown here, it’s only to be found in Of Time and Disillusionment, where one encounters (in the first and fourth movements) vestiges of the kind of crystal-clear, spiky, spritely material so beloved by mainstream British composers, energetic Faberian froth that invariably sounds hackneyed and empty. However, and this is also something i’ve mentioned before, both the nature and the treatment of such material in Hesketh’s music has always managed to save it from ever sounding commonplace or generic, and the same is true here. The fourth movement, in particular, keeps veering away from mundane frivolity into weird asides, where we find burbling bassoons together with a soft glockenspiel (hard to tell if they’re in a dialogue or just blatantly ignoring one other) or a lovely kind of snappy swagger, where the orchestra sounds like they’ve drunk rather too much and are now trying to pick a fight. Far more telling, though – even more than the delicious traces of (French-inspired) opulence that are a definite Hesketh fingerprint – are the surprising levels of violence that rear up from time to time, yanking the structure around with such force that, if it wasn’t for the music’s traces of playfulness and retreats into delicacy, one might start to feel intimidated. Read more

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Jörg Widmann – Drittes Labyrinth/Polyphone Schatten

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Wergo has recently released a new disc featuring two works by Jörg Widmann, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heinz Holliger and Emilio Pomàrico. Polyphone Schatten (‘polyphonic shadows’) dates from 2001 and features a clarinet and viola as soloists, played by Widmann himself and Christophe Desjardins. Despite the levels of activity displayed in the piece, it makes more sense to talk about restraint, as one of the most striking aspects of Polyphone Schatten is the way Widmann matches the rapidity that typifies much of his material with incredibly soft dynamics and articulations. That’s not exactly the work’s default position, but it’s a sort of ‘comfort zone’ to which the music regularly returns, often to the point of near-inaudibility due to being either extremely staccato or moving with quicksilver velocity. In terms of relationships, the soloists are clearly in cahoots with each other, while the orchestra seems to behave by way of response to their activities, often in a supporting or imitative role but occasionally growing a pair and asserting itself in wonderfully wild fashion. For the most part, Widmann avoids conventional dramatic highs and lows, favouring quantities of detail rather than sheer weight and mass, though two climactic passages later on are remarkable in respect of how unexpectedly they emerge and how enormous they sound in contrast to what’s gone before. Read more

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Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

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This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Arditti Quartet + Jake Arditti

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Festivals, Premières | 9 Comments

My 2018 HCMF experience came to an end yesterday in what is now the traditional way, at 1pm in St Paul’s Hall in the company of the Arditti Quartet. Four years ago, they tackled the first seven quartets by James Dillon; on this occasion their concert included the next two instalments, receiving their UK and world premières respectively.

i can remember well how the experience of hearing Dillon’s quartets 1 to 7 at HCMF 2014 (in chronological order) sounded like an exercise in diminishing returns. The earlier quartets were striking and impressive, but became gradually more impenetrable to the point that they simply felt weak and listless. Based on this first encounter with the Eighth and Ninth Quartets, that trajectory isn’t showing significant signs up an upturn. There was some interest to be found in the Eighth, Dillon dividing the Ardittis in two pairs that took it in turns to slither around each other, eventually unifying as a group whereupon their material began to halt and fragment. All of this had something nascent about it, beginning with a soupy miasma and arriving at building blocks, though this was the limit of the work’s scope, ending with the prospect of forming into a tangible idea, its closing moments vaguely cadential. In some respects the Ninth was similar – perhaps even a continuation of sorts – as if extant musical ideas were trying to emerge into its anonymous soundworld: there was the sense of a chord progression poised to break out, though to what extent this was real or just a manifestation of pareidolia is hard to say. Subsequently falling into patterns of simplicity and/or solemnity, broken up rapid passagework either en masse or individually, it was hard not to conclude that, as in much of Dillon’s last few quartets, this was a kind of ‘theoretical’ or even ‘scientific’ music, experimenting with materials, quantities, weights and distributions to see what happens. Considering how much emotional energy and passion is found in most of Dillon’s music, it was strange and disappointing to feel kept at such a distance in these pieces. Read more

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