Robert Scott Thompson – Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees; William Price – Rush Hour

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A couple of noteworthy albums of electronic music by US composers have found their way to me recently. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees by Robert Scott Thompson was released last year and pretty much tells you everything you need to know in that title. Aesthetically, the five pieces contained on this album are a melding of acousmatic and ambient, with some implied whiffs of new age, quasi-spiritual incense thrown in. On the one hand, there’s something rather dated about the timbral palette of these works – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to learn they were composed in the mid-1990s – but this isn’t necessarily an issue (indeed, of itself this could be regarded as appealing) and in any case the way the ambient outlook – which dominates overall – is fleshed out with acousmatic details makes this a negligible concern.

This ambient outlook manifests primarily at a structural level. Put simply, there’s a looseness to the structure of these pieces such that their moment-by-moment activity is more significant – or, at least, attracts more focus – than their long-term direction. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to say that many of them don’t have a clear overall sense of direction, and the extent to which this feels problematic varies from piece to piece. In the case of the title work, it is a problem; there’s a lot to enjoy – the mix of cimbalom- and bell-like pitches interspersed with soft bursts of turbulence, and particularly the way Thompson creates ‘melodies’ apparently from the noise of metallic friction – but due to its half-hour duration it ultimately comes to feel meandering and inconsequential, which for a work evidently seeking to tap into a certain meditative quality is pretty fatal. By contrast the 10-minute Magiae Naturalis really works; bringing to mind the earlier music of Adrian Moore, its ambient mindset is more potent playing out within a much shorter time-span. Read more

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José Manuel López López – Horizonte Ondulado

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My ears have recently been extensively tickled by the sound of percussion, courtesy of Horizonte Ondulado (Undulating Horizon), the latest release from the always interesting Neu label, exploring five works for percussion by Spanish composer José Manuel López López. As always, Neu have lavishly produced the album in a beautiful slipcase containing a 60-page book discussing the music, though i have to say on this occasion i found myself unconvinced – and in some cases downright turned off – by López López’s in-depth explanations. They’re interesting from an anecdotal perspective, but what’s going on in these pieces is for the most part sufficiently straightforward to make the lengthy accompanying discussions feel excessive, almost as if they’re trying to prove a point.

The music itself, performed by percussion group Drumming and Miquel Bernat, is highly engaging, generally concerned with structures demarcated by different kinds of behaviour or texture. In the case of African Winds II for two marimbas and vibraphone, the result is a cross between a moto perpetuo and a stream of consciousness, utilising an attractive harmonic language that’s mobile yet feels fundamentally grounded. Despite being somewhat monotonous as it progresses, there’s a distinct sense of fun running throughout. Solo marimba piece Ekphrasis establishes something akin to a stasis, though created from material that’s tremulous and halting in nature, the instrument seemingly half in shadow. Very gradually López López develops this into an attractive, contrapuntal soundworld that retains something of the vagueness from earlier, passing through various passages of ticking-over tremolos. Read more

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Mixtape #45 : Birds

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At the start of May each year, i always find myself thinking about birds, as the first Sunday of the month is marked globally as International Dawn Chorus Day, something i celebrated in a podcast back in 2010. So the theme for this month’s mixtape is of an avian persuasion – not actually focusing on actual birdsong (some of which were featured in last month’s Spring mixtape) but on music that in some way either references, alludes to or simply takes its name from birds. It’s a typically eclectic mixture, encompassing playfulness (The Real Tuesday Weld, Venetian Snares, Clark, Secret Chiefs 3, Broadcast, Tangerine Dream, Patrick Wolf, Neil Richardson), elegance (Chubby Wolf, Tōru Takemitsu, Aidan Baker, Simon Goff & Thor Harris, Dita Von Teese, Robin Guthrie, Deerhoof, Bernat Vivancos), gritty noir (Gorau Glas, Christopher McFall, Tout Croche, Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch, James Newton Howard, The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble), experimental (Akita / Gustafsson / O’Rourke, Jan Jelinek) along with tracks that are either imitative or almost entirely transparent (Åke Parmerud, Chris Watson, Steve Peters, Douglas Quin – whose music punctuates the mix at 30-minute intervals).

90 minutes of feather-strewn blasts and murmurations; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links (where possible) to obtain the music. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Maria Kõrvits – through (World Première)

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The second piece i’m looking at in this Estonia in Focus weekend is through, a new work for seven players by Maria Kõrvits. In some respects it’s reasonable to think of through as a ‘mood piece’, drawing for inspiration on a series of short lines taken from the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves:

Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.
I hold a stalk in my hand.
I am the stalk.

My roots go down to the depths of the world,
through earth dry with brick, and damp earth,
through veins of lead and silver.

I am all fibre.
All tremors shake me,
and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.

…and I feel come over me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down and down
till they wrap themselves round
some hardness at the centre.
I am rooted, but I flow.

Read more

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