HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: To be continued

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On the opening night of last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, i remember pondering about the shift in tactic regarding the festival’s opening gambit. In 2017, there was a move away from the full-throttle shock and awe that has often typified HCMF’s opening nights, but the first concert of the 2018 festival, yesterday evening, saw a return to the more ambitious scale of previous years, yet in a totally transfigured way. In the Town Hall, in the company of Ensemble Musikfabrik and soprano Juliet Fraser, HCMF 2018 began with the UK première of Rebecca Saunders‘ 80-minute epic Yes.

In many respects, it’s a work that takes us back into familiar Saunders territory. i’ve remarked previously on the qualities of similarity – even, in the best sense, tautology – running through Saunders’ work, and in Yes we’re once again in a land whose contours and landmarks are shaped by a semi-tangible, emotionally-laden engagement with the words of James Joyce. This connects it to any number of Saunders’ other works, but being a piece for soprano and ensemble there’s an obvious connection to be made to Skin (heard at HCMF two years ago). This connection was reinforced by certain articulations – for example, words uttered from behind a hand – and interactions, such as those between the soprano and a muted trumpet, a particularly memorable relationship exhibited throughout Skin. Read more

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Mixtape #51 : Silence (Requiem)

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November is a somewhat sombre month, and not only because the days are getting a lot colder and darker here in the UK. This year’s remembrance ceremonies have had extra potency due to the centenary of the end of the First World War, so i’ve taken this as my cue for the next 5:4 mixtape. It’s titled ‘Silence (Requiem)’, though i should stress that i haven’t created it as a commemoration, homage or tribute to anyone or anything specific – i’ve simply curated music that exists in an interesting and thoughtful relationship with silence.

In some cases this takes the form of busy lowercase chatter (Bernhard Günter, John Wall, Tomas Phillips & Luigi Turra, Shinkei, Ennio Mazzon, Christopher McFall), a few tracks are creatively ‘silent’, presented as ostensibly passive field recordings (Unknown Artist, Christoph Limbach, British Library, Dallas Simpson), and there are various examples of restrained or compressed music, containing a sense of pent-up energy (Ben Frost, Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto, Desist, Jason Lescalleet, Supersilent, Need Thomas Windham, Secret Chiefs 3, Andrew Liles, Ryoji Ikeda). Most of the tracks, though, are gentle, ruminative and/or meditative music, most of which treats silence as an omnipresence into which its material is carefully placed (Gareth Davis & Frances-Marie Uitti, James Weeks, Brian Eno, The Hafler Trio, The Denisovans, Ouvrage Fermont, Jakob Ullmann, Haruo Okada & Fabio Perletta, Burkhard Schlothauer, Kenneth Kirschner, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben).

Interspersed at half-hourly intervals are four short excerpts from choral works that either reference the dead or are otherwise laments. Ricky Ian Gordon‘s Water Music: A Requiem is a work, according to the composer, “not only for the dead, but for what seemed like a sort of death in me”. Galina Grigorjeva‘s setting of Joseph Brodsky’s The Butterfly (review) is an exquisitely tender articulation of life’s frailty and ephemerality. Bernat VivancosRequiem (review) avoids the traditional Latin text in favour of a more personal philosophical and poetic reflection on death. To end the mixtape, following two minutes of quasi-silence by irr. app. (ext.), i’ve turned to Alfred Schnittke and the haunting wordless piece that ends his Psalms of Repentance.

In all, two hours of near-noiseless contemplative quietude; i recommend close listening in a darkened space, and as there are no sudden loud outbursts feel free to crank up the volume as much as desired. Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Sound-Image Colloquium; Living Songs

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A quick announcement to say that this weekend i’ll be at the Sound-Image Colloquium, taking place at the University of Greenwich. An event exploring audiovisual practices and the relationships that exist between sound and image, on Sunday morning – at 11am, presumably following a minute’s silence – i’ll be presenting some of my own work in this area. My talk is titled Son e(s)t lumière: expanding notions of transcription and tangibility through creative sonification of visual stimuli, and in it i’ll be examining the ways sonification has been used in music, with a focus on my ongoing series of Studies.

In addition to the talks, the colloquium also includes screenings and a concert each evening, one of which is devoted to works by Denis Smalley, who is this year’s special guest. Full details can be found on the university’s website.

Also, a heads-up that soprano Jessica Summers will soon be giving another performance of my miniature song Who knows if the moon’s in her next Living Songs concert.

The concert also features songs by Nadia Boulanger, Stravinsky, Copland and Richard Whalley alongside the première of a new work by Jessica Rudman, and it takes place at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich at 1pm on 17 November. Full details here.

Estonia in focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Prophecy (UK Première)

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Another of the works at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Maida Vale concert of Estonian music on 4 July was Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s 2007 accordion concerto Prophecy, which received its first UK performance with Olari Elts conducting and Mika Väyrynen (for whom it was written) as soloist. Any composer who writes a concerto has to make a decision about the nature and significance of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and in the case of Prophecy the entire structure of the piece was dictated by that relationship in this performance.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra interpreted the opening of the work – which starts with the accordion playing a single loud chord, like a huge sigh, after which it falls silent – by biding their time, with rich, sustained chords and quivering pitches, all seemingly uncertain how to proceed, as if they were watching the soloist and waiting for him to do something else. However, when the accordion finally does begin to play again, its material rapid and detailed, the orchestra’s response is contrary, continually steering the music back to their sustained chords from before, seemingly anxious about moving beyond their comfort zone. It gradually becomes clear that the accordion’s role is that of a catalyst, a firestarter acting in order to get the orchestra properly motivated and animated. Eventually it succeeds, resulting in everyone becoming caught up in that most quintessential element of pretty much all Tüür’s music: waves of rhythmic energy and momentum, all syncopations and frivolity. Read more

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Estonia in focus weekend: Helena Tulve – Extinction des choses vues (UK Première)

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In the UK, while it’s not that difficult to find performances of music from many parts of the world, opportunities to hear music from Estonia – with the obvious exception of Arvo Pärt – are extremely rare. So the decision of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to include in their season a concert devoted to Estonian music – celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the country’s independence – came as a surprise and a very real treat. The concert took place on 4 July at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale Studios, and was broadcast earlier this week. Conducted by Olari Elts, the orchestra performed works by three generations of Estonian composers, Eduard Tubin (who died in 1982), Erkki-Sven Tüür and Helena Tulve, all three of them pieces that have been around for some time, but which could do with being a lot better known. In this Estonia in focus weekend i’m going to explore two of them, starting with the piece by the most junior composer of those three generations represented at the concert, Helena Tulve’s Extinction des choses vues (Extinction of things seen), composed in 2007 but only now receiving its UK première.

The way Tulve uses the orchestra in this piece – and in all her orchestral pieces – is to transform it into a kind of giant organism, a single entity comprising innumerable interconnected elements. This is something she and i discussed in some depth during our Dialogue together earlier this year. By keeping the title deliberately abstract, Tulve has also made it interestingly misleading: the musical ‘things’ in the piece are indeed ‘seen’ (or, rather, heard), but often not clearly: we glimpse them, but we cannot necessarily grasp or understand them. Read more

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Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 2)

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Record label Another Timbre has recently released the five discs that comprise the second part of its Canadian Composers Series, featuring music by Alex Jang, Cassandra Miller, Lance Austin Olsen and Linda Catlin Smith. While the excellent accompanying booklet to the series (which, at over 100 pages, is more a book than a booklet) elaborates on the many points of contact and connection between the composers, it would be misleading and inaccurate to say that the music on these five discs shares fundamental similarities. There’s no hint here of a kind of ‘Canadian Collective’ in the manner of the Wandelweiser posse; it’s impossible to miss the fact that all four composers take an overtly reflective approach, not only to their materials but to the way those materials are wielded, but that’s hardly unique to Canada and in any case the way each composer articulates that act of reflection is entirely individual. Read more

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The Arvo Pärt Centre

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18 months ago, i was standing in a forest. It was located on the Lohusalu peninsula, near the village of Laulasmaa on the north-west Estonian coast. This is the site of Aliina, Arvo Pärt’s country retreat, as well as the enormous archive of his scores, sketches and a myriad other materials that have been collected throughout Pärt’s life and which, at the time of my visit, was still being catalogued and organised in a separate building facing Aliina. In addition to this, about 100 metres away into the forest, was a large construction site where diggers and cranes were starting to make preparations for The Arvo Pärt Centre, a hub for the composer’s complete life and work, intended not only to make the archive accessible but also to feature a museum and a concert hall.

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