Esa-Pekka Salonen – Cello Concerto

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One of my highlights from last year came at the end of the summer, during the final concert at the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm. An occasion given over to celebrating composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (which i reviewed elsewhere), the concert included a performance of Salonen’s Cello Concerto given by soloist Truls Mørk and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by – who else? – the composer himself. Originally premièred in early 2017, i didn’t know the piece beforehand but came away enormously impressed at its language and attitude. So, while it’s often true that new works can take an irritatingly long time before becoming available, it’s great to see an EP featuring this piece has been released, performed by the work’s dedicatee, Yo-Yo Ma, with Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Having the opportunity to spending time with the piece again, at length, has clarified things enormously. The first and most important thing to say is that it’s just as deeply impressive on repeat listening as it was on first contact in the Berwaldhallen last September. Salonen writes in the accompanying notes about not being bothered about tradition, and that “a concerto does not suggest a formal design the same way a symphony does”. At first glance, that seems an odd assertion to make considering his own concerto is structured in three movements that broadly conform to the convention of fast-slow-fast. Yet that’s about as conventional as the work gets, and it’s more accurate to characterise the content of those movements as the product of improvisatory whim and élan. As such, structure comes across more like an ’emergent property’ than a clear, prefabricated design underlying things, and even that fast-slow-fast description, when immersed within the piece, seems to be of secondary importance at best. Read more

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Juhani Silvola – Post-biological wildlife

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We might call it “conjectural anthropology”. What i’m referring to here is music (or any art, for that matter) that seeks to fabricate and/or otherwise be inspired by fictitious notions of organic life and activity. We find examples of this in, among other places, the strange electronic languages being uttered in the two volumes of Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species, in the wildly theatrical simulated-ethnographic rituals and dances of Paul Dolden’s Histoires d’histoire, and in the dual attempt to question and (re)invent an ancient magic in Gabriel Dharmoo’s Futile Spells. While none of these works seeks to effect real plausibility – focusing instead on the inherent joy arising from playing fast and loose with conceits of pseudo-reality – it’s surprising how effective and authentic they can feel, and as a consequence, how much we want them to be real. Similar feelings arise when listening to Post-biological wildlife, the latest album from Norwegian composer Juhani Silvola.

Rather than conceptualising a long-distant past, Silvola’s outlook is staunchly forward, looking ahead to a futuristic vision that may or may not involve people. Or, at least, ‘people’ as we currently understand the term: the “post-biology” at play here is evidently a convoluted amalgam of human, animal and machine elements. Opening track ‘Ritualrytmikk’ (itself a lexicological amalgam) brings together an assortment of percussive taps and beats amidst electronic blips and bleeps such that the distinction between them, though always evident, seems irrelevant. Occasionally surrounded by deep gongs and high chimes, the ritual aspect of the music is articulated with ice-cold simplicity and clarity, forming a nice counterpoint to the capricious irregularity of its rhythmic patterns. More relaxed but connected in parallel, ’20th Century Meditation’ turns metric regularity into a steady state textural foundation over which gentle plinky-plonky melodic fragments meander. As such, it evokes the progenitors of ambient music (hinted at in both parts of its title, “20th Century” and “Meditation”) while sounding unequivocally new. The title track is equally committed to just a single idea, setting up a habitat within which ersatz bird- and insect-sounds proliferate, joined later by gusts generated by an artificial storm. Read more

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Clemens von Reusner – Electroacoustic Works

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In contemporary electronic music it can be hard to find a good balance between a robust sense of purpose while retaining the possibility of spontaneity. To an extent, the sculpted nature of fixed media works tacitly tends to enforce the former over the latter such that, like the dialogue in most movies, everything we hear is not merely interesting or relevant in the moment but necessary to the larger-scale direction of the work’s inner narrative. With that in mind, it’s been good to spend time with an anthology of electronic music by German composer Clemens von Reusner, where precisely this kind of balance between order and whim is demonstrated.

Aside from the fact they were all composed within the last decade, if the seven works on the disc have something fundamental in common it’s to be found in Reusner’s general attitude with regard to the handling of his materials. The title of one of the pieces, Sphären der Untätigkeit (‘Spheres of Inactivity’), might do well as a description of this attitude. At pretty much no point is there a sense that Reusner is pushing things on or overtly marshalling them toward a certain end or outcome. Instead, sounds – both on their own and as part of larger textures – are given time to establish themselves, allowing us to get to know them, before they change and/or develop into something new. What that means is that the impression of structure in these pieces is just that, an impression, one that ostensibly arises more from the inclination and interaction of each work’s elements than from an underlying scheme within which they are designed to conform and fit. Read more

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Mixtape #55 : Sun

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For the latest 5:4 mixtape, inspired by the incredible heat that’s been sizzling its way across Europe recently, i’ve turned to the Sun as my theme. The mix has a somewhat different tone from my Summer mixtape from four years ago (which was, generally, intended to be quite upbeat and – well – ‘summery’), drawing on differing degrees of languorousness, dreaminess and, here and there, some searing intensity. As such, it starts rather slowly and lazily, through relatively gentle tracks by Heiko Maile, Benn Jordan, Fovea Hex, Anna von Hausswolff and Altus, before beginning to pick up some momentum. What follows includes various songs (Lady & Bird, Holly Herndon, Björk, Sigur Rós, C Duncan, Jenny Hval & Susanna, Ghost Twin), some of which are beautifully full-blooded paeans to the sun and/or poetically tap into its connotations of heat and fire. Of the non-vocal tracks, i’ve chosen some for their exuberance (Ashra, Kenny Beltrey, Deborah Pritchard), some for their potent energy (Autechre, Ulver, The Hafler Trio, Aidan Baker, Hecq, Elizabeth Anderson, Ouvrage Fermont, Wolves in the Throne Room, Brian Reitzell) and others for their ecstatic bliss (Ascoil Sun, Andrew Liles, Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano, Sleep Party People, Christina Vantzou, 36, Liisa Hirsch). The mixtape begins and ends with short traditional songs from Trio Mediaeval that invoke the sun’s rising and setting.

Two hours of sound that bakes, basks and boils in sunlight; here’s the tracklisting in full, including time positions and links to buy the music. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann – LP1

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It was perhaps inadvertently helpful that i first listened to LP1, a new release from Joseph Branciforte and Theo Bleckmann, in bed late at night. Not because it’s nocturnal, as such, but more to do with the fact that it sounded in sympathy with the pitch blackness all around me. For while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that LP1 is an album without colours, still less that it’s a ‘black’ music, there’s nonetheless an inscrutability to its palette that i find fascinating every time i listen to it. Its soundworld is something of an amalgam of the cycling, mechanical, glitchy plinky-clunk of Michael Cutting and the overlapping, quasi-isorhythmic patterns of Brian Eno’s earliest ambient music. If that suggests a paradox, the one tightly-controlled and hands-on, the other loosely-arranged and hands-off, then that’s exactly what permeates all four tracks of LP1, a sensibility in which improvisational freedom and compositional planning are evidently both being brought to bear on the music at the same time.

There’s a dronal aspect to this, which fuels the sense of music always moving while never moving far from its starting point. In opening track ‘6.15’ it’s founded upon enormous deep bass pulses that form the bedrock for a network of soft glitches, breathy vocalise and an assortment of pitches that emerge and recede at random. The bass is so profoundly low that it practically transcends the notion of drone, instead becoming a kind of architectonic rumble, like the low resonance given off by a far-distant energy source. Its omnipresence is curiously elusive; trying to focus on it somehow renders it less perceptible. Nonetheless, its consistency enables a dual state that on one level feels meditative – its higher-level sounds gently impinging against each other, occasionally accompanied by wordless singing – while being simultaneously insistent, demanding attention. As such, it’s not remotely background or atmospheric music, but an altogether more active form of immersion. Third track ‘4.19’ acts in a similar way, delicate Fender Rhodes notes calmly rotating and coalescing around a fixed central point, like a sonic mobile. There are hints of Eno’s Music For Airports here, but its texture is much more complex, and again, doesn’t in any way encourage disinterest in the listener. Read more

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Forum Wallis 2019 (Part 2)

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The main focus during the five days of concerts at Forum Wallis was on ensemble and chamber music. An important and impressive feature of these concerts was their aesthetic diversity, not showing a marked preference for certain kinds of music-making. This resulted in extremely different – sometimes, practically opposite – works sitting side by side, providing a shifting and engagingly unpredictable experience. That being said, diversity of gender was overwhelmingly absent: just five of the 39 works performed during the festival were by women composers, a pretty bleak statistic that artistic director Javier Hagen would do well to significantly improve in future years.

Three ensembles were featured: two visiting, one in residence. On the opening night, Freiburg’s Ensemble Aventure performed a programme focusing on Latin America. The only piece that overtly referenced this was Javier Álvarez‘s well-known Temazcal for maracas and tape, and while from my perspective the piece, despite its age (composed in 1984), has lost none of its freshness and vitality, it was interesting to compare notes with a trio of young Mexican composers (taking part in the festival’s Composer Academy) who clearly found it rather more irritating, particularly its (to my mind) amusing, folk-infused conclusion. Either way, percussionist Nicholas Reed’s rendition of the work was excellent, not merely meticulous but extremely elegant. Both Leonardo Idrobo‘s macchina and Graciela Paraskevaídissin ir más lejos positioned their materials with utmost care. For Idrobo, the music lived up to its name, turning Ensemble Aventure into a machine-like mechanism that nonetheless exhibited a great deal of spontaneity and caprice; Paraskevaídis’ music was more emotionally-charged, caught between seriousness and volatility, never sounding portentous but packing a lot of emotional weight that interestingly never quite resolved into something concrete. Quema, a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Natalia Solomonoff, was similarly conflicted, alternating harsh, dissonant tuttis with more thoughtful, inward episodes where the players all felt constricted, as if struggling to make any sound emerge from their instruments; it was all marvellously dramatic. Read more

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Forum Wallis 2019 (Part 1)

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It’s impossible to be aware of everything that’s going on in new music. For me, that fact is usually associated with new CD releases, but i’ve come to realise it’s just as true for concerts and festivals. Apropos: Forum Wallis, a five-day festival of contemporary music that takes place annually in the Swiss mountains. i suspect i’m not the only person on whose radar Forum Wallis has never properly registered, but having recently returned from my first experience of the festival, it clearly deserves to be not only more widely-known but loudly celebrated, and take its place among the annual round of new music festivals that, if at all possible, are not to be missed.

Quite apart from its musical objectives, you could hardly ask for a more stunning location to experience new music. Forum Wallis takes place in the small town of Leuk, situated in the south-west of Switzerland on the banks of the river Rhône, surrounded on each side of the valley by soaring Alpine peaks. Having begun in 2006, the festival has evolved under the leadership of composer-performer Javier Hagen such that its focus is divided between instrumental and electronic music, both of which are explored in the old-meets-new architectural space that is Schloss Leuk, the town’s wonderfully restored castle. Read more

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