Alison Kay – Flux (World Première)

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Next in my Lent Series is a piece by a composer whose work i’ve encountered precisely once. Born in 1970, Alison Kay‘s studies took her from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to the Royal College of Music to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama & finally to Sussex University; since 2004 she’s been back at the RCM in a teaching capacity. Beyond this, neither i nor, it seems, the internet, knows much about Kay or her music, save for a short piece included on a 2001 NMC release, & this instructive quotational nugget:

I enjoy the physicality of music. In composition, the potential to craft and shape structures from the most intimate timbral nuance to the most intense, dramatic structural gesture opens endless possibilities. I try to create visceral, three-dimensional music that has the potential to encompass exciting rhythmical impetus, rich timbral and harmonic language, textural shapes and surfaces, and a sense of varying movement and weight through time. I always start from the perspective of the physical properties of instruments and performance spaces. I see the interpretation of my music by performers and listeners as an integral part of the compositional process.

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Chaya Czernowin – Afatsim

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The next piece in my Lent Series celebrating women composers is by the Israeli Chaya Czernowin. Czernowin left Israel in her 20s, studying first in Germany & then the United States (her teachers included Brian Ferneyhough & Roger Reynolds), where she remains today, in Boston. One of the features of her work that i find most engaging is the way it absolutely demands repeated listenings. That’s not to suggest one can’t take away anything of value in a single hearing, only that one’s always aware there is very much more to be grasped, & Czernowin’s work is sufficiently interesting that there’s plenty of motivation to return to it on later occasions. Her 1996 work Afatsim is just such a piece.

Composed for an ensemble of nine players, spaced apart as much as possible, Czernowin subdivides the players into four groups, or to use her term, “composite instruments” (see programme note, below). However, due both to the way these ‘instruments’ are presented & also the way their materials are intermingled, shared, focussed upon & so on, means that it is hard, sometimes impossible to perceive the groupings in an obvious way. This obfuscation seems to help rather than hinder the piece, however, the textures of which are often difficult to get hold of, particularly at the beginning. The soundworld of Afatsim is one where instruments are not, for the most part, played according to convention, establishing a kind of aural ‘no man’s land’ where sources feel unknowable, save for the persistent early squeal of a recognisable bass clarinet. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)

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Today marks the first day of Lent, & as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion & standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom & harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:

why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why Read more

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CD roundup (concertante)

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Judging by the majority of CDs that have been sent to me recently, contemporary music is seeing a surge in recordings of works highlighting solo instruments. The collection i have received occupies different regions of the avant garde, from the most familiar & accessible to its forbidding outer fringes. Somewhere in between, yet the most impenetrable of them all, is James Erber‘s ‘Traces’ cycle for solo flute, released by Convivium Records. Erber has long struck me as a kind of non-mainstream Alexander Goehr, in that his music is always rigorously argued, its logic unassailable (a point Erber has always hammered home via his voluble essays & programme notes), yet never really opening itself up to allow the listener in. In short, its intellectual prowess crowds out its emotional potential, & in this respect the ‘Traces’ cycle is no different. There’s greatest interest to be found in the first of the three movements, where a low, increasingly rhythmic element makes incursions into the music’s ongoing melodic thrust (involving some nice fluttertongue writing &, after its fraught high point, some enigmatic ruminative finger tapping). But the second & third movements ramp up the intensity such that it becomes relentless, demonstrating an unstoppable, determined conviction that ends up nullifying both the effect & the interest. A curious extended stasis towards the end, involving soft high notes, is a welcome break, but the piece is no less inscrutable for it. In many ways, the trio of smaller works on the disc make a much stronger impact, but strongest of all is flautist Matteo Cesari‘s playing; it may be hard to decode Erber’s code, but Cesari does at least ensure its intricacies are presented with utmost clarity.

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The Start of an Era: Bristol New Music 2014

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Ordinarily, finding yourself traipsing along cold, dark, damp streets from concert to concert of cutting edge music, you’d expect the time to be late autumn & the place to be Huddersfield. Except this time it was the streets & venues of Bristol that were the focus of attention, for the inaugural Bristol New Music festival, three days packed with an impressively diverse line-up of the great & the downright remarkable. Bigging it up last week, i opined that it looked all set to become the HCMF of the south west, & there is, as it turns out, a connection, as Huddersfield supremo Graham McKenzie has provided what he described to me as “curatorial advice” in getting BNM up & running. Yet while in some ways his fingerprints could be detected all over the weekend, Bristol had an atmosphere & a vibe quite distinct to that of Huddersfield. It’s not insignificant, i think, that the word ‘new’ has been used in favour of ‘contemporary’, the latter carrying with it stronger connotations of the concert hall. BNM did have plenty of concerts taking place in familiar concert halls—the festival is, after all, a collaboration by five of Bristol’s principal venues: Arnolfini, the Colston Hall, St George’s, Spike Island & Bristol University—but more often than not, they either weren’t presented as, or didn’t feel like, familiar concert hall events. Often this was rather refreshing; sometimes, not so much.

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

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The spring concert calendar is starting to fill up with some real delights, with three forthcoming festivals being particularly mouth-watering. The most imminent is Bristol New Music, occupying a long weekend beginning this Friday. In many ways, BNM looks set to be a kind of HCMF for the south-west. Ensemble musikFabrik will be presenting Harry Partch‘s rarely-heard And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, using recreated versions of Partch’s home-made microtonal instruments, in addition to ‘interpretations’ of Frank Zappa. There are also major new works from John Butcher, Keith Tippett, Christian Marclay & Christian Wallumrød, the Bristol Ensemble performing works by Tansy Davies & Matthew Schlomowitz, as well as concerts by clarinettist Gareth Davis, Roly Porter & the wonderful Ellen Fullman. Throw in Quatuor Bozzini with a première by Claudia Molitor & a cluster of installations, & you’ve got the makings of a seriously exciting three days of music. Full details can be found here, & there are some tasty savings to be had if you go for the day passes.

At the end of next month—serendipitously placed so soon after the recent Pioneers of Sound festival in Birmingham—is London Contemporary Music Festival‘s three-evening celebration of the undisputed big daddy of acousmatic music, Bernard Parmegiani. Each evening is jam-packed with Parmegiani goodness—including documentary films alongside the music—with diffusion coming from such luminaries as Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison & Daniel Teruggi, & there will be live sets from Rashad Becker & Florian Hecker. Considering how exhilarating these concerts are going to be, the tickets are wonderfully inexpensive (a weekend pass will set you back a mere £20); details here.

Yet another weekend of sonic glory is coming in early May with the 2014 Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. They certainly seem to be ramping up both the diversity & the ambition, promising no fewer than nine world premières, from the likes of John Oswald, Michael Finnissy, Georg Friedrich Haas, Christian Wolff, Richard Youngs & James Clapperton. This year, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will find itself rubbing shoulders with, among others, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, vocal group EXAUDI & the Icelandic collective S.L.Á.T.U.R.. Details have only begun to emerge in the last few days; everything you need to know can be found here, & if you fancy a jaunt to Reykjavík in April (no?), then details of the Icelandic Tectonics Festival—with special focus on Alvin Lucier—can be found here.

All being well, i’ll be at all the above (possibly not Reykjavík), doing my best to navigate through & report back on the proceedings. Despite Britain’s interminably awful weather at the moment, in the concert halls at least 2014 has a decidedly sunny outlook.

Valentine Weekend: Laura Bowler – Irresistible Demands of the Flesh (World Première)

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To bring this inverted Valentine Weekend to an end, i’m turning from the intimacy of duets to the large-scale, inflamed overload of the orchestra. Laura Bowler‘s Irresistible Demands of the Flesh is an audacious exploration in sound of the theatrical tenets of Antonin Artaud, specifically the desire to push performers to a point of extremity in order to unlock something fundamentally true. The piece (the title of which appears to be from an entry about Michel de Ghelderode in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre) in part achieves this through an avoidance of conventional notions of idiomaticism & performance, seeking to place the members of the orchestra emphatically outside their traditional comfort zones. It does much the same thing for the listener, coming across not so much the product of an act of composition as a 12-minute slab of spontaneously seething organic sound, elemental & overwhelming. Read more

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