A recent new work permeated by the subject of death is Trauermärsche for chamber orchestra, by French composer Philippe Manoury. By tapping into the funeral march idea, Manoury sought to engage with what he has described as its dual character, “at the same time something tragic but also something derisory … and macabre”, elaborating how the use of the plural in the title—literally ‘Funeral Marches’—is “because it will be like several funeral marches mixed together so one can imagine that there are several orchestras, one appearing when another disappears, and then the first one comes back, etc.” Although he cites influences from both Mahler (the famous ‘Frere Jacques’ music in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1) and Webern, the music of Trauermärsche is most concerned with alluding to practices of processional, with the funereal processions of New Orleans especially in mind. Read more
The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focussed on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.
Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. Read more
As it’s Hallowe’en, with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days closely following (and Remembrance Day a little after that), i’m going to tap into the prevailing temporal undertone and explore a few pieces concerned one way or another with the subject of death. To begin, a piece that is wholeheartedly concerned with that subject—and which is also, i think, highly suitable in character to Hallowe’en itself, George Crumb‘s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed over a six-year period, completed in 1968. For his theme, Crumb turned once again to the poet whose words he set repeatedly through the 1960s, Federico García Lorca, utilising a curious ensemble comprising baritone, electric guitar, electric double bass, amplified piano/electric harpsichord and two percussionists. As is usual for Crumb, the players are all compelled to go beyond their regular call of duty, with everyone playing some percussion as well as singing at various points. Read more
For reasons as much to do with priorities as anything stylistic or aesthetic, pop music doesn’t get featured on 5:4 very often. But it would be remiss of me not to make some mention of today’s 30th anniversary of one of the most exhilarating debut albums ever made, Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, originally released on 29 October 1984. i was 11 at the time, and discovered the album among the record collection of my best friend’s mother (i encountered Thriller the same way). First contact was more to do with the packaging than anything else; two vinyl records in a gatefold sleeve covered with wonderfully bizarre, perverse paintings imitative of Picasso, featuring imagined beasts engaging in a Dionysian orgy and entering two-by-two into the head of giant phallus (see below). What 11-year old boy could resist the temptation to go further and hear what sounds had been married to these outlandish images?
The majority of new releases to have come my way recently have featured music for ensemble and/or orchestral forces, each disc of which is usually devoted to the work of a single composer. The opportunity to scrutinise an individual’s work in great depth at times turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. This is definitely the case with NMC’s recent disc of Helen Grime‘s music, Night Songs. i’ve enjoyed and written about Grime’s work on a number of occasions, but this album—which, helpfully, arranges its contents in chronological order—contextualises those works such that rather glaring problems instantly emerge. Chief of them all is the extreme narrowness of Grime’s compositional language, with regular recourse to precisely the same mannerisms and tropes in pretty much every piece. Take a drawn-out melodic line, put it mid-register and not too loud, adorn it with sharp staccato notes (woodwind or pizzicato strings) and far, far beneath it have grumbling deep bass phrases. This kind of thing has worked for Oliver Knussen, and on the basis of this disc, Grime seems to feel compelled to introduce this same device into everything she writes. It’s an irritation that gets compounded by the timidity of Grime’s orchestral writing; not merely her safe, familiar use of the instruments, it’s the lack of anything approximating a release, a true letting-go of control, that makes the majority of the seven works on this disc feel so thoroughly grounded. Striving for equilibrium doesn’t require one to be so equivocal. Read more
My next blast from the past is a rather lovely work by the Italian composer Aldo Clementi, who died in 2011. Clementi’s interest in both bell-type sounds (music boxes, carillons, etc.) and the notion of self-generating music can be heard to good effect in Madrigale, composed 35 years ago, in 1979. The title would appear to reference the Italian madrigale; originating in the early 14th century, these were usually written for two voices, setting idyllic texts—typically pastoral scenes or expressions of love—and characterised by their use of decoration, particularly melismas. Clementi’s work echoes some of these aspects, composed for two pianists (piano four hands) and tape; the piano is prepared with different materials used in each octave (beyond this Clementi doesn’t make specific demands), while the tape contains a pre-recorded part played by glockenspiel and vibraphone. This combination of metallised and plasticised percussive timbres creates a rich, bejewelled soundworld akin to a large music box, which Clementi reinforces by the heavily mechanical nature of the work’s material as well as its method of execution. In essence, the tape part acts as a click track of sorts, marshalling the pianists through a strict, linear rallentando that continues throughout Madrigale‘s 9-minute duration. At first, the tempo is rapid, pianists and tape creating a dense, swirling cloud-like texture formed from cycling patterns and phrases, but after barely more than a minute the music begins its inexorable, entropic drag, falling away dynamically as its tempo approaches ever closer to zero. Read more
Turning to electronic music, i want to highlight several recent releases from the Entr’acte label. Founded in 1999 in London but today based in Antwerp, Entr’acte’s output has always made an impression long before any of the music has been heard. Their approach, not unique but certainly unusual among labels seeking to promote new music, has always been to present each release with essentially generic design work and packaging, and a bare minimum of supplementary text. For years, the CDs were actually contained within hermetically sealed packets that required cutting open to access the content; today, they come either in small cardboard wallets emblazoned with their catalogue number or in digipacks with a daub of colour. For all its aloof utilitarianism, there’s undoubtedly something of a pose being struck by Entr’acte, but the way it rejects conventional notions of consumer appeal is an extremely positive thing. Composers are supremely gifted at getting in the way of their own music, in their efforts to seek to demystify its intangibility with tracts of programme notes and contextual disjecta membra. Entr’acte clearly takes the view that such verbiage is a crutch required by neither composer nor audience; a courageous view, certainly, but one supremely vindicated by the quality of their diverse catalogue.